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Feeding Horses When Feed is Short or Quality is Poor

By Jenifer Heyden, PAg, Regional Livestock Specialist, North Battleford

March 2019

Under ideal circumstances, feeding programs for horses are generally based on good-quality forage. However, when the weather does not cooperate, forage supplies can be limited and/or of lesser quality, causing horse owners great concern. Lack of moisture can reduce the hay available and with reduced supplies the price of hay goes up. It is imperative that your horse’s nutrient requirements are still met and the feed bill is kept in control through alternative feeding strategies. Similarly, these strategies can also be implemented if hay quality is poor.

Feed test, feed test, feed test – it is a good investment. Knowing the level of nutrients provided by the forage can help you to use the feed effectively. In addition, you can plan your supplementation program accordingly, so as not to over or under feed. The basic analysis needed includes dry matter, energy or Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN), crude protein, acid detergent fibre (ADF), neutral detergent fibre (NDF), and minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. Additional tests can be done if toxins, moulds, nitrates, etc. are a concern.

Feeding to meet nutritional requirements means providing the amount of feed needed, not the amount the horses will eat. Horses typically eat 1.5 to two per cent of their body weight in forage. Some forages are too high in fiber and supplementation will be required to meet their requirements. Body condition is a great indicator of intake and overall maintenance or weight gain/loss. If body condition is increasing above what you want, you may be able to reduce the amount of feed provided, in turn, making those precious supplies last a bit longer. On the other hand, horses that are not maintaining their weight, or are losing condition, will need their ration adjusted. If hay is limited or of lesser quality, you may need to supplement with a concentrate (grain, cubes, pellets) to provide the additional energy required for that horse to gain or maintain the needed body condition. There is more information on body condition scoring on the “Feeding Horses” web page.

Developing a feeding program using different or alternative feeds may require additional management, but it can be done. While alfalfa/grass mix hay is commonly used in horse rations, there are other options when hay is in short supply. Horses require a minimum of one pound of roughage per 100 pounds of body weight per day. For example, a 1,200-pound horse requires a minimum of 12 pounds of roughage (preferably long stemmed hay) in the diet per day. It is important to weigh your bales to ensure you also have enough quantity to last throughout the winter feeding season. Additional wastage and bedding factors should be accounted for. Alternative feeds may include: alfalfa cubes, greenfeed, silage, grains, pellets or even straw.

Using grain/concentrate to supply a percentage of the horse’s requirements will help to extend your forage supplies and add protein and energy to a low quality forage or straw based ration. However, you must control the daily intake of these feeds, and multiple feedings per day may be required.

Cereal straw, while commonly fed to beef cattle, is not often used in horse diets. Straw is low in protein, low in energy, and high in fibre. While it does provide gut fill, the nutritional value is low. Balancing diets of horses where straw is used is challenging and not ideal as high straw rations can lead to impaction and colic, sometimes resulting in death. Straw cannot be fed alone and must be supplemented with alfalfa cubes or pellets or some type of concentrate (grain, complete feed, etc.) as there is a high risk of impaction.

Water, minerals and vitamins are also important in any horse diet. Water should be clean and fresh, of good quality and provided free choice. Minerals and vitamins, while provided in minute amounts, are very important for overall health and productivity. When purchasing a mineral/vitamin premix, consider the ratio of calcium to phosphorus but also the total amount of minerals and vitamins provided in relation to the type of forage and/or concentrate you are providing. Read the labels for manufacturers’ feeding instructions and try to find one that will best fit your management style and animal requirements.

Consider the body condition, age, work load and environmental factors in addition to feed quality and availability when determining your winter feeding plan. In order to maintain gut health and reduce the risk of digestive upset, establish a daily schedule for feeding and stick to it. Remember, grain should not be left over from one feeding to next; whatever is not consumed should be removed from the feed bunk/manger. If hand-feeding, divide the total ration into two or three equal portions daily – especially with respect to the grain/concentrate being supplemented, otherwise forages can typically be provided free-choice. If you need to make changes to the ration, do it gradually over a minimum two-week period. Consult with a nutritionist or Regional Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist by calling the Agriculture Knowledge Center at 1-866-457-2377, for more information on feeds for horses.

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