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Don’t let forage shortages hinder horse health

Management measures, alternative feedstuffs can help stretch supplies

Long-stem forage is necessary for normal digestive function and normal behavior in horses. According to equine nutrient requirements published by the National Research Council, horses should have a minimum of 1% of their body weight each day in forage.

But what happens when the forage inventory needed for the horse operation is insufficient? 

Equine owners faced with forage shortages have several options to stretch supplies, such as decreasing nutritional requirements, reducing waste, alleviating stresses and supplementing with alternative feedstuffs.

Let’s start with what may be considered a last resort: culling animals. While this will directly reduce forage requirements, it may not be something horse owners want to consider. Still, critically looking at the herd and knowing the total annual cost of keeping each horse is smart management that can help in decisions about whether to reduce herd numbers.

One way to preserve your hay inventory is to reduce waste. Make sure horses consume as much of the bale as possible by using an effective feeder rather than feeding it on the ground. When baling, using net wrap rather than sisal twine has been shown to help reduce storage and handling losses by as much as 65%, according to a study by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Keep hay indoors or cover it completely with a tarp. Storage losses of uncovered hay can be upwards of 30%. Also, store hay off the ground, on a pallet or another lifted dry surface.

Protecting horses from environ-mental stress can also help them more efficiently process the forage they consume and reduce their energy requirements. During the summer, take heat abatement measures such as providing shade, using fans for better airflow and allowing free access to clean water. Adjust riding and workout schedules to cooler parts of the day and include frequent breaks. In the winter, be sure horses have adequate bedding, provide wind breaks and use blankets for outdoor horses during inclement weather. Alleviate health stresses on the horse by treating for parasites and using effective fly control methods.

Test hay to understand its quality and feed according to specifications, ensuring that it is neither overfed nor underfed. High-quality hay will be richer in nutrients and more calorie-dense, which means less is needed—important during a shortage.

Alternative feedstuffs can be useful during forage shortages. Hay cubes, hay pellets and chopped alfalfa can be used as total replacements for hay. A standard MFA product is the 14% Horse Cube. Complete feeds that contain a mixture of grains and roughage can also replace hay. These are nutritionally balanced and adequate in fiber, but horses will eat the feed much faster than forage. It may be advisable to feed frequent small meals rather than fill a self feeder.

Fiber sources other than forages commonly used here in the central U.S. can include soybean hulls, rice bran, beet pulp, oat hulls, peanut hulls, distillers’ and brewers’ grains, wheat bran or mill feed. These feedstuffs cannot fully replace hay but are used as partial replacements.

Cottonseed hulls, cottonseeds, and gin trash—a byproduct of the ginning process composed of lint, burs, stems, cottonseed and seed fragments—are commonly fed to cattle, but they are usually not feasible to use in horse rations. Other fiber sources that are not typically recommended in equine rations include oat hulls, peanut hulls, rice hulls and sunflower hulls, which have low digestibility in horses. Poultry litter is often fed to cattle, but it is not a viable alternative fiber source for horses.

Along with adequate forage, horses should have access to plenty of clean water. Normal pasture plants are high in moisture, but during hot, dry conditions, their water content is greatly decreased. Similarly, hay has very little moisture, so horses usually drink more water when they are receiving dry forage than when they are consuming succulent pasture.

Transition feed changes slowly. Feeding large amounts of high-energy feed or abruptly changing the source or concentration of energy from one meal to the next predisposes horses to colic.

If you find forage inventories running low this summer and fall, visit with the animal nutrition experts at MFA for advice on alternative solutions.

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