Green as grass.

From the moment we bought our little farm, we’ve been puzzling over one of the toughest challenges horsekeepers face – how to ensure that our charges would have delicious, nutritious grass to eat all throughout the summer and fall. There are a few reasons, of course, for working so hard to make this happen. One is Sunny’s weight (or lack thereof). Since I’ve owned her, she’s tended toward the skinnie-minnie side, and I knew that the longer she could have good grass, the better chance we’d have of starting off next winter with her in good condition. The other driving force behind our ambitious pasture-management plan was that we did not want to feed (and therefore pay for) hay all summer if we didn’t have to.

We started out with about six acres of hay fields on the property, pre-barn-building. We wanted to try to get some of our own hay off the fields this year, so we’ve left the three-acre back field and the one-acre side field alone. Our next door neighbour/farmer-extraordinaire fertilized those fields for us in the spring, and he’ll hay them this month.

The two and a half acre front field has become a little horsey haven for Sunny and Stella. It houses their shedrow barn with in/out stalls, the winter (sacrifice) paddock with mud-proof pad, the riding ring, and the septic field. The rest of it we divided into five grass paddocks, with permanent fencing all around the outside, a corridor down the middle, and step-in temporary fencing for divisions. In the fall, once the grass has stopped growing, we’ll take out the step-ins to make one large pasture for them to play in until the snow flies. Thanks to the corridor, and strategically placed gates, the horses can get from any paddock back to their shelter whenever they like.

grazing by tree

We started turning Sunny and Stella out on grass mid-May. We began with just fifteen minutes, and added an additional fifteen minutes a day to ensure we gave their digestive systems plenty of time to accustom themselves to their new food source. Then, at the end of May, the big day arrived. The horses began full time turnout on grass.

Since then, they’ve been spending anywhere from four to ten days on each paddock (depending on the size of the paddock as well as their grazing habits and how much rain we’re having). As soon as we notice that they’re eating the grass down below three inches, or when the paddock starts to look “weedy”, we close it off and move them to the next. Then we mow the recently-vacated paddock down to an even level. This keeps the weeds under control and allows the grass to grow in a little thicker and more lush for next time. Each paddock ends up getting about 4 weeks of growing time between uses, so unless we have an unusually dry summer, we should have lovely grass right through to the fall.

What surprised us the most was how the horses (under) utilized the paddocks. They are very fussy about what they’ll eat and what they won’t, which is why allowing them to graze on the whole field all at once wouldn’t have worked for us. Left to their own devices, they will eat the good grass right down to the dirt, and studiously avoid the grass they don’t like (read: weeds), so our entire field would have ended up an ugly mixture of overgrazed wasteland and tall patches of weeds. Containing them in smaller areas, and moving them frequently is what allows the grass time to grow back up, since once it’s grazed down to the ground, it won’t grow again this season.

We have just completed our first full rotation of all paddocks. Yesterday, the horses went back into Paddock 1, which has grown right back up to where it was their first time out on it. Paddock 2 looks even better (we actually didn’t mow paddock 1 after its first round, and the difference between it and paddock 2, which did get mown after use, is quite remarkable). Paddock 3 is growing up nice and lush, with very few weeds, and paddock 4 is coming along nicely as well. And the added bonus? We haven’t had to feed a stitch of hay since the end of May, and skinnie-minnie-Sunny has been gaining weight, to the point that we’ve been able to eliminate almost all of her grain. Looks like our plan is working!

sunny and stella grazing

Sunny & Stella get a round bale feeder.

Since Sunny and Stella moved to our backyard, we’ve noticed them wasting a vast amount of hay. They love to stick their noses way into the middle of the round bale, pull the hay out, and then let it drop to the ground. Then they poop on it.

at-the-bale

 

After researching dozens of different types of hay feeders, including everything from slow-feed nets to Bale Buddys, my handy husband decided he would just go ahead and build one himself. I, for one, am glad he did.

Here’s how he did it:

Four six-foot long pressure treated 4X4s are beveled on each end to create skids.

feeder 1

 

At each end, and two feet on center along one skid, notches are cut to half the thickness of the 4X4 and the width of a 4X4 to receive the vertical posts.

feeder 2

 

The bottom of the vertical posts, which are not pressure treated, are notched to fit into the pressure treated 4X4 skid.

feeder 3

 

The 32″ long vertical posts are set into the skid that forms the back wall of the feeder.

feeder 4

 

Holes are drilled and 4″ galvanized carriage bolts are inserted through the skid and the post.

feeder 5

 

The nut and washer are on the inside of the feeder beneath the floor so there is no chance a horse could scratch its nose on it!

feeder 6

 

The remaining three skids are notched only on the ends, to receive the vertical posts.

 

feeder 7

1X8 rough pine boards are nailed to the posts of the back wall with 3 1/2 inch galvanized nails. We wanted the space between the boards a little narrower than you typically see on hay feeders, so there would be no chance of my accident-prone horse somehow getting a hoof through.

feeder 8

 

The floor is assembled with two full-length 1X8 boards on the sides, and eight 25″ boards on the back and the front portions of the floor. This leaves an almost two-foot wide gap in the middle of the floor for the round bale to settle into, so it centers itself in the feeder.

feeder 9

 

Up to this point, all construction was done indoors, with boards cut to measure, but not yet assembled, except for the back wall. So now we moved the entire project out to Sunny & Stella’s paddock. Stella was extremely interested in the construction project, to the point that we had to pause until the hay became of even more interest. Now work could resume.

feeder 10

 

Once all the pieces were assembled, the gate (which was pre-built in our basement) was attached using 8″ galvanized tee hinges. A 6″ barrel bolt secures the gate.

 

feeder 11

After watching Sunny almost poke her eye out on the corner of the post (did I mention she’s accident-prone?), we decided to bevel the posts for safety.

feeder 12

This would have been easier to do with a compound mitre saw in the basement before the boards were added to the posts, rather than a hand-held reciprocating saw out in the middle of the paddock, but we think they turned out just fine.

feeder 13

 

The finished product, with a (partially eaten) round bale rolled in place.

feeder 14

 

Sunny and Stella approve.

feeder 15

 

Day 25

Anyone who knows me, or has been following my Equinotes blog, knows that I’ve been working for years toward having my horses at home with me. This has not been an easy task, and involved having to completely renovate and sell our city house (still not accomplished, but almost there), buy a suitable little farm close enough to the city that I could still commute to my job (not at all a simple proposition, as farm land in the area where we wanted to live rarely comes up for sale), and then build the perfect little barn for my two horses (who have never actually lived in the same place).

Well, somehow, we managed to make almost everything happen (like I said, city house is still not on the market, but that’s our next goal)! On Saturday, December tenth, Sunny and Stella came home. The process of preparing the site, building the barn and fencing off the winter paddock was a long, arduous, roller-coaster-ride of a process. My husband, my father-in-law, and my step-father built it from the ground up with their own hands, and were hampered the entire time by relentless rain, high winds, and a water problem that just wouldn’t go away. There were days when I felt it would never be finished, and days when I started to question whether we’d made the right choices. But on that day, twenty-five days after the first post went in the ground, when my horses got to enjoy their new home together for the first time, I knew that it had all been worth it.

Day 1:

day-1

Day 25:

paddock day 1

The struggle isn’t over. In fact it has just begun, of course. Currently there is no water or electricity in the barn, and the tack room hasn’t been built yet, so everything needs to be shuttled by hand (including feed and water) from the house. Sunny is a hard-to-keep senior with what I can only describe as early stage dementia some days, and Stella is a saucy pony who gets fat on air but still feels she’s entitled to every scrap of food in existence, so even their day-to-day feeding arrangements are a challenge. We’re at the beginning of the worst time of year in Nova Scotia (temperatures can go from twenty below to ten above in a matter of hours, leading to a freeze-thaw cycle that just won’t quit), and currently Sunny has an absolute hissy-fit if I even think about taking Stella 30 feet outside the paddock to the riding ring.

And despite all of these things, I cannot even begin to express how absolutely blessed I feel to have this farm, and these horses in my back yard. Even the worst day, with them at home, is better than the best day with them somewhere else.

at-the-bale

I have so many plans and hopes for the upcoming year, but my only real resolution is to remember, no matter what, that my dream has come true, and that everything else is just the sugar on top.

This one’s mine.

This is my arena. No, it’s not a big fancy sand ring. And yes, it’s a smidge short of 40 meters long (but a perfect 20 meters wide). It doesn’t have a fence (yet), and it’s not exactly perfectly flat (but it’s really, really close).

mine 1
It reminds me a lot of the riding ring I had when I was growing up. It was about the same size, a rectangle of grass in the middle of a field, and every week, my dad would haul the lawn mower up there and mow it for me. It wasn’t a big, fancy ring either, but it saw more than its fair share of clinics and pony club weekends and jump schools and dressage lessons. And if memory serves me correctly, I had an awful lot of ribbons hanging in my tack room that were a direct result of training that happened in that less-than-perfect ring.

mine 2
I love my little grass ring. My husband helped me mow it today, and the whole time we were mowing and raking (and waving at the local farmers driving by scratching their heads good-naturedly at the crazy city kids out mowing a rectangle in the middle of a hay field), all I could think about was how I just can’t wait for my first ride in this ring.

I’ve ridden in a lot of nice arenas in my time. Arenas with amazing footing or gleaming white fences or lights so you can ride at night. But there’s one thing about this one that none of those arenas had. This one’s mine.

mine 3

 

A nice little farm for Sunny & Stella.

I grew up with horses in the back yard. I got my first pony when I was nine, and from then until I went off to college, we always had a horse or two (or six) at home. My formerly non-horsey parents became experts at mucking stalls and making bran mashes. Horses were as much a part of our lives as breathing. I remember cold winter mornings, when my dad would come to the barn with me to help do chores, and breezy spring evenings when my mom and I would sit on the tack boxes in the aisle way after night check, listening to the horses munching on their hay. Every weekend was spent at a horse show or clinic. Family vacations and camping trips were things other people did. Horses were our lives, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. And I’ve been waiting for over two decades to get back to that life.

Fast forward to a month ago. That’s when we spotted it on the internet. A nice little property, with what looked like some good fields, at a manageable price, in one of my very favourite parts of Nova Scotia – a little place called Elderbank, in the Musquodoboit Valley. Two days later, we went to see it. I think I spent about 10 minutes total looking at the house – just long enough to make sure it was livable. Then I headed out to the fields. Here’s what I found:

post 2 image 1

 

In an instant, I could imagine Sunny and Stella in this field. I could picture the fencing, the barn, the riding ring… everything. I’d been planning and dreaming and scheming for so long, and now, standing in this field, I could see it all. I knew we had to have this place.

The past four weeks have been a roller coaster. This hasn’t been an easy purchase. Things didn’t exactly go smoothly, and we had more than our fair share of moments when it seemed like the entire deal was doomed. There were certainly times when it would have been easier to give up. Just walk away. Look for another place. But then I’d close my eyes and remember standing at the top of that field on that sunny day in June, imagining my horses grazing contentedly together, and I knew we couldn’t give up. We had to keep going. They say nothing worth having ever comes easy, and now I know exactly what they mean.

We got a text message from our agent today. The deal was done. The sold sign had been put up. The property is ours. We close in three weeks. We did it. It just goes to show that good things don’t come to those who wait. Good things come to those who decide what they want, and never give up on it.

Welcome to Devonwood Farm.

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