Forage alternatives: What to feed horses when hay and grass are short

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Drought followed by a wet and cold winter can compromise haymaking.
Drought followed by a wet and cold winter can compromise haymaking.

Hay shortages can strike fear into the hearts of horse owners. When grass growth has been poor, and the hay harvest has been patchy, there are other options for providing forage to your horses.

Fibre provided by forage is the mainstay for equine digestive health. Every horse or pony should have a minimum fibre intake of 15g/kg bodyweight (dry matter) per day, which is about 9kg of hay or 10.5kg of haylage for a 500kg horse. Ideally horses should be fed fibre ad lib, unless on a specific restricted diet.

Clare Barfoot RNutr, research and development manager for feed manufacturer Spillers, said that in Britain, for example, with a swelteringly hot, dry summer following hard on the heels of a cold, wet winter the parched grass has struggled to grow well in many parts of the country.

“As yet it’s unclear as to the extent of any potential shortage of winter forage but it’s likely that quantity and quality may be reduced and prices may go up accordingly,” Barfoot said.

“But there are numerous hay and haylage alternatives that can replace or extend your forage supply.”

Straw:

Good quality straw is particularly useful for good doers and overweight horses to decrease the energy density of hay. The type of straw is less important than the hygienic quality, although oat and barley straw are used more commonly than wheat. Straw shouldn’t be used as the sole forage source, though, as the protein content is very low and the fibre can be particularly indigestible, which can contribute to impaction colic in susceptible horses. Up to 30% replacement is acceptable. 

Chopped dried grass:

Dried grass differs from hay because it is harvested earlier and is dried artificially rather than in the field. It is much greener in colour than hay and is often higher in protein and energy. It’s ideal for poor doers and veterans but shouldn’t be used to completely replace forage and should be avoided for laminitics and good doers. 

Grass nuts:

Harvested and dried in a similar way to chopped dried grass, nuts are pelleted rather than chopped. The protein content is higher than hay and the fibre content is lower so they provide more energy per kilo. They not suitable as a complete hay replacement but can be useful for poor doers and veterans. The high water-soluble carbohydrate levels make them largely unsuitable for those prone to laminitis. 

Soaked sugar beet is a palatable way to add fibre into your horse’s diet.
Soaked sugar beet is a palatable way to add fibre into your horse’s diet.

Sugar beet:

Soaked sugar beet is a palatable way to add fibre into your horse’s diet. It can’t be used to completely replace hay because it is 80% water once soaked and doesn’t require much chewing – which is physically and psychologically important for your horse. But, there is some evidence that feeding sugar beet can increase the digestibility of your horse’s hay.

Short chopped fibre:

These can be a useful option. Some contain vitamins and minerals in addition to chopped straw, grass and alfalfa. Look for products that can completely replace hay due to their similar levels of protein, fibre and energy. Often these products are also suitable for laminitics and good doers as well.

Soakable fibre products:

Often these can partially replace hay due to their high fibre and low sugar and starch content. Look for products that have protein levels of 8-10%, which is similar to hay.

High Fibre Cubes:

These are a versatile and palatable way of providing additional fibre to the daily ration as a complete compound feed, as a partial forage replacer or as healthy fibrous treats in a snack ball.

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