To harrow or not to harrow…

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07 Jan To harrow or not to harrow…

A harrow is one of the tools of ‘good pasture management’ that just about every traditional land management resource recommends.  Yet very few of us know when to use it, or why we’re even using it in the first place.

A good pasture is what we should all be striving for.  Properly managed, it can provide our horses with a sustainable, welfare-friendly, attractive home that meets their critical behavioural needs…which are {microphone to the audience} Forage, Friendship, Freedom!  Woo hoo you got it!

Oh, and an ideal complete diet..bonus!!!  Now you’re talking my kinda horse feeding and housing!

But, before you go on a pasture management neglect guilt trip, let’s first consider if it’s the best thing to be using on your pastures, and what your alternatives may be.

Trot on over to the tool shed with me and we’ll get kitted out with the why what and how of harrowing.

What is a chain harrow?

Now, you may be forgiven for thinking chain harrows are a cleverly camouflaged leg trap for busting your ass on in a pasture (feel my pain?).  Or to add to your vet’s suturing and lower limb lameness repertoire.  However, they’re actually tool that you can pull out from your land management toolkit (and they should never be left in a pasture!)

When they’re not buried in grass, they look like this.

A chain harrow

A chain harrow

We have many tools at our disposal that we can apply with human creativity to influence our ecosystems.  A chain harrow is classed as a tool of technology. The ones we humans luuurve to use the most!

As with all tools, you need to know why, what and how you’re going to use it.

The wrong tool used the wrong time can have serious detrimental consequences to your delicate ecosystem and an even bigger knock on effect to the surrounding environment.

Know thy why of tools!

Why harrow?

There are many things to take into consideration before deciding if a harrow should be your tool of choice.  This will be entirely dependent on your own unique situation, which can be radically different to your next-door neighbour, or even from paddock to paddock on your own property.

With this in mind, the first and most important thing you need to ponder is “What do I wish to achieve by harrowing?” ….because whether you do or you don’t, you will have an effect on your pastures, so make sure it’s a desirable one!

Consider:

  • What is my climate and landscape? …is it wet/humid or dry (brittle tending or non-brittle tending)?
  • What season are we in?…spring, winter, etc., growing season, non-growing season, drought
  • What are conditions like at soil surface?…this will have a BIG impact on the plants in the horse paddock and whether harrowing is the ideal choice.
  • How effective are all 4 of my ecosystem processes currently? (water, mineral, community dynamics (biodiversity), & energy flow)  Will harrowing improve upon this?
  • What am I using the land for? (if other than grazing and housing).
  • Are you only grazing horses on the land or do you have other grazing animals to consider?
  • What are your environmental values and land management vision?  If sustainable, biodiverse and eco-friendly are at the top of your list, a harrow will most likely not even be on it.

So, there’s a lot to think about (and that’s only just a few of the considerations to think over)!

Let’s default to some of the standard textbook info on the subject.

Harrowing can be used to create 3 major effects:

  1. It helps to move around surface material such as dead vegetation, poop etc.
  2. It pulls out dead grass, light rooted weeds, helps to aerate the soil/short grasses, and also spreads out seeds etc.
  3. If it lightly disturbs the soil, nitrogen can be mineralised (freeing it so the plants can use it) giving it a bit of a nutrient boost.

It’s often used to help control the trademark of poorly managed horse pastures i.e. distributing the poo piles to help eliminate lawns and roughs (we all know what they look like!), and thus helps to return the nutrients to the soil in a more even manner.

[With this in mind, consider “am I really addressing to the root cause of the problem?”  Could there be a better way to manage the animals and land to negate the necessity to harrow?]

How and when to harrow

Timing is key. A planned, monitored and controlled recovery period is essential to harrowing happiness.

[As a side recovery is also used as part of the tools of grazing and animal impact, which can be fantastic ways to effectively manage our land.  More on that in another blog.]

Depending on your own situation, you may need to keep horses off for about 6 weeks or more. This is needed for 3 reasons:

  • It takes this long for the horses to accept the grasses again after being spread liberally with pee and poop….cannot say I blame them!
  • Harrowing spreads worm larvae. The hotter and dryer the better to desiccate the little blighters.  While in the peak, dry summer days in South Georgia or SE Queensland that would take about a day :), this can take way longer in more favourable mild and wet conditions that a Blighty summer is used to.
  • It allows the plants and other critters that you’ve just raked over and uprooted, time to recover and re-establish.

The idea behind using a harrow is to give a leg up to your mineral cycle.  By breaking up dung and helping the process of decay this can potentially release minerals into the soil.  However, a thick stand of pasture grass can create an efficient microclimate that will do that job beautifully…again negating the need to harrow.

Should you choose to harrow while your plants are in a dormant phase, such as in a non-growing season or during drought, and you have a poor water cycle and thus soils, you run the risk of minerals being lost from your pastures.  They are easily washed out into waterways and/or your next door neighbour’s land (and cannot just go ask for them back!), instead of being taken up by growing plants and being returned to your soil.

So, if you’re going to harrow, the growing season is ideal.  If you’re not sure what yours is, ask a farmer or local land care group.

Cautionary fallows into which you can fall

In a pasture where you have a lot of species diversity (important note: this is what we should be aiming for!) harrowing can be tough on the more sensitive species.  These also tend to be the preferable lower NSC (sugars & starches) grasses.

You also run the risk of disturbing the delicate biodiversity that is (hopefully) already resident, and could greatly impede your attempts to introduce more.  Think ants, spiders, small mammals, frogs/toads, nesting birds, worms, dung beetles etc…they are all an invaluable part of your horse’s pasture buddy network!

[If you’re lucky enough to have a resident dung beetle crew at work for you hang a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the pasture!]

Depending on the vehicle you use to pull the harrow (preferably use a small tractor, ATV, or horse :)), you can create compaction issues….thus defeating what you’re trying to achieve.

Consider also environmental and sustainability issues that come along with motorised vehicle use, as well as the energy use and impact to make and distribute the chain harrow in the first place!

Less harrowing harrow alternatives

Use your horses to do the work for you!

Harrowing is designed to mimic the natural behaviour of densely packed grazing animals as they move across grasslands.  By using horses, cows, goats etc. in a planned holistic grazing system, all that you are trying to achieve with harrowing, and more, can be attained by applying the tools of animal impact and grazing.

It’s sustainable, much better for the environment, can help to regenerate grasslands quicker by improving all 4 ecosystem processes, and you get to spend more time in the saddle than the tractor seat!

Still itching to pull that harrow out?

As one of my brilliant Holistic Management mentors* so eloquently summed it up for me … “a set of pasture harrows is like a loaded gun.  You only use a gun when you know what the outcome of the use or action is.

(or at least those of us in the UK and Australia, the US has a way different approach to loaded guns!!) 

Understand that harrows, and the choice of vehicle with which they are being dragged behind, have the potential to cause a considerable amount of damage to a landscape.

If you don’t know why you are doing it and the right time to do it, then don’t do it!

Go find yourself a nice arena to play in.  They do a beautiful job on leveling sand and other surfaces!

Have a plan!

Assess your current situation, and determine what you are trying to achieve.   Your values and vision will ultimately influence your tools of choice, and the effects you will have on Mother Nature.  The reins (or steering wheel) are in your hands.  Just be sure to make a plan, monitor, and control and replan if necessary.  Don’t let your harrowing be harrowing!

 

Do you harrow?  What methods of pasture management do you routinely use? Do you feel confident you’re doing the right thing for your land, horses and planet, or is it all just a bit overwhelming? I’d love to hear about your pasture pearls or perils!

Leave a comment in the box below, shoot me a message to jayne@equijay.com or canter on over to Facebook and join the herd.

Chat soon,

Jaynex

*Huge thanks and shout out to Jason Virtue from Land Life Education for his thought provoking discussion and contribution on this subject.

 

 

 

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6 Comments
  • amanda
    Posted at 10:10h, 07 January

    Thank you for info. I have never harrowed my paddocks (not got the equipment) I have sheep grazing over the winter it will be interesting to see how the paddocks are this year. I plan to try and reseed a small area with horse friendly grasses and do a bit each year.i only have 3 acres for 3 ponies and two pigs! I pick up the poo !

    • Jayne Roberts
      Posted at 08:30h, 08 January

      You’re very welcome Amanda, thanks for your feedback. Our animals can do all the work for us, it just takes a bit of creativity from us to plan, monitor, control and re-plan if necessary. Small steps are great, they can yield huge results when get the management bit right. Keep on keeping on! Jx

  • Heidi Braithwaite
    Posted at 05:58h, 08 January

    Based in the UK, our fields have tended to get quite churned up during the winter and in the past,we have routinely used the harrows to break up the most poached areas as soon as it has been dry enough to do so.

    We have recently adopted the equiicentral system of land management and whilst it is only in its infancy as I write, I am hoping that the new system will negate the need for over harrowing and rolling (another former necessity after long wet winters!).

    • Jayne Roberts
      Posted at 08:27h, 08 January

      Ah, the muddy winters of the UK, I remember them well!
      Jane & Stuart’s Equicentral system is my fave group housing system. Team it with some holistic grazing planning and your onto a winner!
      Thanks for sharing. Jx

  • Heidi
    Posted at 07:06h, 08 January

    With typical Australian “inventiveness” we slash the paddock after grazing, then we hitch the trailer with the composted “stable yard” manure onto the tractor, then we attach the sheet of rio, weighted down with tyres, to the trailer, then I drive the tractor and my husband shovels the composted manure onto the home made “harrows”. Round and round we go, with a few “directions” thoughtfully given backwards and forwards between ourselves! It’s not a perfect system, but we realised selling manure by the bag to others was sending off a whole sh&t load (sorry…couldn’t help the pun… Censor as you wish) to other people’s gardens, that could be better used on our own paddocks! Fortunately, we have enough paddocks to rotate our 6 horses through, followed by the six cows, then the 30 meat sheep. We have enough end hosts to keep the worm burden down to minimise use of wormers to that which is necessary.
    Regard,
    Heidi (who unfortunately crashed the tractor into the shed)

    • Jayne Roberts
      Posted at 08:24h, 08 January

      Great example of human creativity at work Heidi! Keep those golden nuggets on your property…great stuff. No censorship needed around here..I am originally from the NE of England and my parents were publicans..I’ve heard it all 🙂 Hope you, the tractor, and shed are all OK! Thanks for sharing. Jx

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