What factors increase the risk of your pasture tipping your horse over the edge?
Nikki here! There are many factors that affect the sugar and starch levels of our pastures. As Spring is a time of new growth, and a massive concern for many horse and pony owners, it is important to understand different elements and their management in your horse's pasture and how these will ultimately affect the wellbeing of your animals.
If you have a laminitic, Insulin Resistant (IR) or Cushing’s horse or ponies, then these elements are of particular concern. Some of these management and environmental elements include:
- Pasture management
- Frosts or high temperatures
- Balanced soils
At GutzBusta, we’re committed to helping you keep your horse safe, so we’ve put together some news, tips, and advice to help you prepare for Spring.
Mowing your Pasture!
I often hear advice given to people who mow their pastures to reduce the amount of feed and make it 'safer' for their horses and ponies to graze.
This unfortunately has quite the opposite effect on pasture sugar levels. Anything that stresses a plant, raises the sugar levels. Moving stresses the plants, so although there may be less volume, what is now available is now fully loaded with sugar.
Taller, mature pastures, after the seed head has matured are safer than short, stressed pastures.
Although there may be some merit to mowing to keep the seed head from forming in the pasture species as the sugar content is greatest while the seed head is forming and maturing, this needs to be individually evaluated for your particular paddock and plant species. It is said that the pastures remain higher in sugar levels for 2 to 4 weeks after mowing, so mowing may just not work as by the time the pasture is 'safer' to graze after the stress of moving, it will by then have seed heads up and growing again. This is such an individual situation and all species of grass have their own way of dealing with being mowed, rate of seed head production etc. The more species you have, the more you have to take into consideration.
RIRDC - Managing pastures to reduce laminitis
Quite a few years ago RIRDC came out with a good article on this topic. They analyzed pastures available in Australia and discussed stages of growth, different varieties of species available, the best pasture species for horses, and stress factors that affect plant sugar levels.
Although it's referencing NSC (non-structural carbohydrates), if you transpose ESC (ethanol soluble carbohydrates) where NSC is written or just remember that it is the sugar/carbohydrate that is the issue then you will still find an article that is worth reading.
As I keep mentioning, anything that stresses a plant raises its sugar content levels. Overgrazing will certainly do that.
This is very important to realize for at-risk horses and ponies as they are often locked up in a small yard or paddock that seemingly has little to graze on. However, that short stressed grass that they are picking at that is growing at ground level can be VERY high in sugar and starch and although well-meaning, may keep these horses in a laminitic state and not aid their return to soundness.
Dirt is the best place for these horses and ponies in a laminitic state, with low sugar hay that has an ESC and Starch content of less than 10%.
New shoots of grass are also higher in sugar and starch which will be seen in an overgrazing situation.
Another important consideration is that most of the sugar in grasses tends to be in the bottom 3 to 4 inches of the plants. While it might be tempting to think that a very short, overgrazed pasture is safe because there’s “nothing much there,” such pastures present several risks—grasses are very stressed and only the lower inches of the plant are available, meaning these pastures can be very high in sugar. Add a frost to this and this short-stressed grass can be diabolically high in sugar.
Frosts and High Temperatures
One of the general rules of assessing whether your pasture is ‘safe’ or not is determined by both temperature and sunlight on the plant:
- When the night temperatures are below 5 degrees C, the grass is too high in sugar and starch due to the stress on the grass.
- Once it gets above 5 degrees C at night, the lowest plant sugar and starch level is before sunrise
- However, once temperatures are heading over 32-40 degrees Celsius (depending if the plant is a C3 or C4 species), the plant is also stressed and it's sugar levels are raised.
At this temperature and below, the plants’ growth rate is slow, which means stored sugars aren’t used up. As such, they’ll still be high in the early morning. In this situation, potentially at-risk horses should not have pasture access.
It makes sense that if the soils are not balanced and are nutritionally depleted, then you can only expect the plants growing on these soils will also be the same. This of course adds more stress to the plant and is another factor to take into consideration.
You can easily do a soil test yourself using programs such as SWEP. Over-fertilisation is also not a good thing and can lead to nutrients being 'locked up' and not available for the plants.
Regenerative farming techniques can lead to healthier soils without high fertilizer input costs.
What is regenerative farming?
Regenerative farming is a way of working with nature’s own perfect cycles and processes, cultivating biodiversity and letting the circle of life flow as it should.
This differs from large-scale, conventional farming, which focuses on efficiencies at the cost of a life well-lived for the animal, and respect for the ecosystem surrounding the farm. This may involve planting lots of trees, and visiting and moving animals every day.
Regenerative farming combines ancient knowledge, constant observation, and the mimicking of nature’s own processes to raise animals in a way that actually improves the land, the soil, and the overall ecosystem.
Grass is still the best!
Nothing can ever replicate grass in terms of its nutritive value to the horse. There are vitamins and minerals that can't be replicated by any supplement or bag mix.
Horses have evolved to graze 16-20 hours a day eating high-fibre diets. A diet high in fibre is super important to aid in horses having a healthy and correctly functioning digestive tract.