I’m sure it’s not an everyday question but who would have thought there were so many different species of grass, did you know that worldwide there are over 11,000 species? In the UK alone there are approximately 100 species of grass used, just to clarify this information this is only species and not varieties. The type of grass that is grown and used to make equine feed is very different from the type of grass you would find growing in your lawn at home. Lawn grasses tend to be mixtures that are easily maintained whereas the grasses used in agriculture tend to be grown for their high yielding qualities, as they are harvested on a regular basis. Grass is rarely only one specific variety usually there are a mixture of varieties and very often species in any one grass field.
The specific grass species that I am going to focus on in this article is Fescue Grass, in particular Tall Fescue (scientific name: Festuca Arundinacea) including varieties such as Kora, Barelite and Mahulena. Tall Fescue grass can be identified by its broad coarse leaf, it is very resilient to extremes of heat and cold and has good wear tolerance which is very important in agriculture in order to withstand the large vehicles running on it during the regular harvesting process. The structure of the plant growth makes the need for weed control minimal, it is an extremely dominant species of grass, the Tall Fescue grasses smother out any other growth from weeds eliminating the need for any use of chemical herbicides.
The majority of agricultural land is regularly tested to see what nutrients are present in the soil and what may be lacking, this ensure farmers are able to assess the ongoing needs of the land. Testing shows what nutrients are used by growing certain crops and therefore what is required to be replaced to create healthy soil to grow future crops. Soil samples are taken from various places in fields, this is done using a GPS mapping system, these samples are then sent away to be tested. Once the samples are analysed the results are transferred on to a digital map of the farm that then shows the farmer the areas that require additional nutrients and minerals adding to them. There are obviously many different soil types however the standard required elements are usually, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) also known as Ps and Ks, sometimes the soil can become too acidic and can require lime, a form of calcium (Ca), this helps to balance the PH levels in the soil. The Ps and Ks and also the lime are spread on the fields at variable rates according to the required amounts shown on the maps. Technology is key in the farming industry these days; this means the GPS map produced by the analysis can be uploaded to the tractors computer system thus ensuring the correct amount of the required nutrient is spread on the areas of the field that are lacking in it. This is known as variable rate spreading. All of these essential nutrients are required to keep the soil healthy for growing crops.
The growing process starts with ensuring the soil is properly prepared, cultivation is the first operation carried out. This means that the land is worked in order to create a bed of soil following the harvest of the previous crop in the rotation. Once cultivated the next step is to flat lift, a process that breaks up the subsoil (the layer of soil below the topsoil) this eases compaction from when the tractors and vehicles have been running on it previously and also ensures that the roots are able to descend into the soil once the seed is drilled. Following the flat lifting process the field will be power harrowed to make a level seed bed, the seed will then be drilled into the soil. The final step in this process is to flat roll the field, this reduces the risk of any soil and stones potentially damaging the harvesting machinery. Working the land and drilling the seed usually takes place during the last weeks of summer and the first weeks of autumn, this is very weather dependant, if the land is too wet or too dry the farmer will be unable to work it properly. In the spring the crop will start to grow and nitrogen (N) fertiliser will be spread on the fields to help the growth of the crop. Once established the crop will be in situ for up to 5 years.
In order to get the most consistent quality of feed the grass should be harvested at the same growth stage each time. Harvesting starts in the spring, around mid to late April, weather dependant. In an average year the grass could be harvested up to 5 times, as with all farming this is completely dependent on the right mix of sunshine and rain, this harvesting continues until the grass stops growing, sometimes as late as October/November in a warm year. The grass is ordinarily harvested in a cycle however different soil types can also affect the growth of the crop meaning occasionally the grass will have to be harvested out of cycle in order to ensure it is at the correct growth stage. The harvesting process starts with mowing, the grass is mown and then rowed in preparation for the forage harvester. The forage harvester will collect the grass and chop it into short lengths, this is then taken by trailer to the drying plant to be made in to horse feed. If needed, following each harvest the grass is given an application of nitrogen (N) fertiliser to encourage growth for the next harvest.
To guarantee the grass is field fresh, once it enters the drying plant it is flash dried, this takes approximately 30-40 seconds. Removing the moisture at such speed ensures that the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals are still present in the finished product. The grass is as palatable as being turned out and can provide the benefits of fresh grass all year round.