Last Updated: | By Sarah Braithwaite, Author & Horse Health Expert
You own a horse, you own or rent your own land, but how do you carry out testing soil for horse pasture using scientific analysis and why would you want to improve the soil for horses?
A delicate balance exists between the balance of minerals in the soil, the balance of the micro-organisms and other animals that live in the soil and the roots which grow the grass your horse eats. It is extremely important to understand that when soil is not looked after, not nurtured, not tended and not fed what it needs, the environment where your horse eats becomes sick.
When the soil is sick, the microbes and animals feeding upon the land become sick. When this delicate, but huge community, balance is upset this is when the roots of the plants cannot get what they need and then the balance of nutrients within the leaves of the grass becomes affected.Healthy soil supports the right micro-organisms to support the right growth of healthy grass. Healthy grass means healthy horses.Click To Tweet
What is important to understand is that if you pick up a handful of soil there are more living organisms in that one handful than there are humans on the planet. In that one handful there are millions of forms of life many of whom we do not even have names for. So rather than see the soil your horses walk upon as just a medium for anchoring plants, see it as the very life, the very health, the very reason your horse can and will be healthy. Soil needs looking after, it needs tending and the way to do this is to feed it and the huge community of organisms that lives in it what they need.
Each soil in each field will be different. This is because the way the land has been used an cared for affects the soil health. Geography too affects soil type and quality but it is not just about geography. Determining exactly what levels of all the important minerals are needed for your soil based on testing the state of your soil is crucial.
Healthy soil supports the right micro-organisms to support the right growth of healthy grass. Healthy grass means healthy horses who will get the right amount of minerals, the right amount of protein and the right amount of sugar and starch. They will also eat grass which produces better phytonutrients and these phytonutrients foster glowing, resilient health.
Unhealthy soil will supports the wrong micro-organisms which will affect the health of the grass. Unhealthy grass means unhealthy horses who will not get the right amount of minerals, not get the right amount of quality protein and be exposed to stressed grass high in sugar and starch. Grass which is unhealthy and stressed will not produce a range of phytonutrients to support and maintain a healthy animal.If you pick up a handful of soil there are more living organisms in that one handful than there are humans on the planet.Click To Tweet
The conventional way to test soil uses a testing method and values from RB209, which is a document produced by DEFRA. Here at Forageplus we have not found conventional soil sampling practice nor the one sized fits all system of fertiliser application to be effective for testing and improving soil for horse pasture.
The conventional methods did not tackle reducing the very high levels of the mineral manganese on our land. Protein quality in the forage we made was so affected, when we used conventional methods, that the horses developed poor muscling and hoof cracks. The reason for this is that conventional methods give minerals an index reading, depending upon quantities found in a sample.
The index numbers are based on a weak plant root (rather than a healthy one) and its nutrient needs from soil water. So right from the beginning this approach takes its figures from an unhealthy situation and one that completely ignores the impact of the soil micro-biome on plant health. The unhealthy situation is used as a bench mark purely because that is the the norm for plants grown under conventional systems.
The index is simplified further by being linked to quite a wide range of readings for each mineral, you can see these index ratings below.
|Index||Phosphorous (P)||Phosphorous (P)||Potassium (K)||Magnesium (Mg)|
|Grassland||Tillage Crop||All Crops||All Crops|
|1||0 - 3.0||0 - 3.0||0 - 50||0 - 25|
|2||3.1 - 5.0||3.1 - 6.0||51 - 100||26 - 50|
|3||5.1 - 8.0||6.1 - 10.0||101 - 150||51 - 100|
|4||> 8.0||> 10.0||> 150||> 100|
|Soil Index System
Index 3 is the target index for soil P, K and Mg
(Morgan's soil test)
The system then devises how much of the three major minerals should be applied in a complex manipulation depending on winter rainfall and residual nitrogen in the soil, how much farm yard manure was spread and what crop is to be grown. It is in no way looking at horse pasture which, typically for horses, is highly compacted and very compromised by over grazing. It is also not looking at what is in the soil versus what needs to be the optimum to result in the healthiest of soil micro-organisms.
The conventional system is very much one which starts and finishes with the vested commercial interest of the bodies producing fertilisers. The end game is in creating a fast growing, lush crop, which is weak due to the speed of growth. This weak crop is susceptible to attack from fungus, pests and bacteria. That is why so much spraying is needed in today’s modern farming. The soil is seen merely as a vessel to provide a physical rooting facility, support and little else.
The Albrecht/Kinsey method, which Forageplus prefers, is much more precise and is excellent for testing soil for horse pasture. This method starts from the optimum soil health so that the plants grown in it are able to express their full potential. It is based on looking at the healthy plant with healthy roots. The soil is seen as a living organism which needs the correctly balanced environment to function to its optimum.
Balancing the major minerals is seen as the first and most important consideration and this is calculated from Professor Albrecht’s work. The balancing looks at the holding capacity of each individual soil. This number will be missing from the indexing system described above.
Without the holding capacity information you do not know the potential of your soil. To make this clearer just see your soil as a battery. There are different sized batteries which require different amounts of charging to give them optimum power.
The holding capacity of your soil indicates how big a battery it has. Some soils are like small batteries, others are like large batteries. Soils with small batteries (a small holding capacity) will need small amounts of minerals to maximise their potential. Equally soils with large batteries (a large holding capacity) will need a large amount of minerals to support optimum balance for the the best growing environment.
Knowing the maximum holding capacity of each of the minerals needed for optimum soil health enables you to optimise the potential of your soil and provide the right environment and the right conditions for the best and healthy growth of grass for your horse.
Fertile soils will have more mineral holding capacity than un-fertile so the conventional approach falls down straight away at the first hurdle. Where you have a poorer soil then the correct strategy is to apply certain minerals a little and often to maximise both yield and nutritional value of the crop grown.Testing soil for horse pasture, getting the right analysis to make your grass healthy for horses to eatClick To Tweet
The conventional method also places no importance on the correct ratios between minerals which will be different depending on the type of soil. Getting the ratio right for the individual soil influences both workability and texture, this in turn influences whether your land gets water logged or drains well. Incorrect mineral ratios along with compaction is a massive problem for horse owners.
Typically land which is compacted will produce grass which is high in iron and or manganese and these two antagonist minerals will block the uptake of other minerals which are commonly deficient in horse’s diets creating both frank and relative deficiencies.
The other problem with conventional soil reports for horses is the way the emphasis on lime correcting pH level is used to exclusion. Magnesium has an influence 1.6 times that of calcium and pH but is generally ignored when balancing soil nutrients. Yet if you get the balance of the major minerals correct using Albrechtian proportions, one finds the pH automatically corrects to the optimum 6.5. Calcium and magnesium, the primary minerals to be balanced, will greatly influence this factor. Potassium and sodium will also influence pH.
There are not many agronomists or laboratory facilities practicing this type of soil reporting in the world and even less using this effective method of testing soil for horse pasture. Getting the balance of minerals in the soil correct and improving the health of the grass will affect the positive health of the horse.
Get the applications to your soil right and based on plant root health rather than starting from a position of weakness then you will get optimum, healthy nutritious grass growth. This healthy nutritious grass will transfer to the animal but you have to start with a healthy soil balance first. This in our opinion cannot be done with the conventional soil report approach.
Here at Forageplus we believe that the best way to support horse health is to grow it through healthy soil but you do need the right test in the first place.