Google Translate Disclaimer

A number of pages on the Government of Saskatchewan`s web site have been professionally translated in French. These translations are identified by a yellow text box that resembles the link below and can be found in the right hand rail of the page. The home page for French-language content on this site can be found here:

Renseignements en Français

Where an official translation is not available, Google™ Translate can be used. Google™ Translate is a free online language translation service that can translate text and web pages into different languages. Translations are made available to increase access to Government of Saskatchewan content for populations whose first language is not English.

The results of software-based translation do not approach the fluency of a native speaker or possess the skill of a professional translator. The translation should not be considered exact, and may include incorrect or offensive language Government of Saskatchewan does not warrant the accuracy, reliability or timeliness of any information translated by this system. Some files or items cannot be translated, including graphs, photos, and other file formats such as portable document formats (PDFs).

Any person or entities that rely on information obtained from the system does so at his or her own risk. Government of Saskatchewan is not responsible for any damage or issues that may possibly result from using translated website content. If you have any questions about Google™ Translate, please visit: Google™ Translate FAQs.

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.

We need your feedback to improve Help us improve