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Over the past several months, we have concentrated on ways to stretch forage or substitute ingredients for hay in cattle feeds. This was done due to a lack of hay being available this feeding season. Horse owners are also having a difficult time finding an adequate supply of hay for this feeding season. While similar in ways, the digestive system of a cow and a horse are also uniquely different. Before finding ways to stretch forage in the diets of horses, it is important to understand the horse’s digestive system.

The horse is classified as a non-ruminant herbivore. This means that the horse has a simple stomach that processes chewed foods consisting of vegetation and grains. The digestive tract consists of the mouth, tongue, esophagus, stomach, small intestines, cecum, and colon. Each segment of the horse’s digestive track performs specific functions that are important in the digestion and absorption of nutrients.

The large intestine of horses and other hindgut fermenters is a fermentation system analogous to the rumen. The process of fermentation that occurs in the hindgut is essentially identical to that which occurs in the forestomachs of ruminants. The fact that a horse is a hindgut fermenter allows the horse owner to meet the forage requirements of the horse through means other than long stem forages.

The biggest advantage that forage offers a producer is the fact that it is usually the most economical way for a horse to get some of its nutrients. The negative side to this is that the horse’s ability to digest these forages falls somewhere in between the cow’s rumen and the pig’s simple stomach.

While high quality hay is usually the most economical means of providing daily nutrients to the horse, processed forage products, cubed forage products or pelleted forage products can also help meet the fiber requirements of the horse. While horses are grazers, and their digestive tracts are designed to process forage almost continuously, this forage does not have to be in the form of grass hay. Your local Quality Co-op can provide you with some of the following products that will allow you to meet the nutritional needs of your horse, without feeding large amounts of hay.

Cubed, pelleted, or dehydrated alfalfa can be used in the diets of horses. Horse owners turn to these products to supplement or extend the forage in the horse’s diet. Although the cost of these products is greater, there are some advantages such as higher nutritional quality, reduced mold and dust spores as well as reduced hay waste from long stem hay falling under feeders. The extent to which these products can be fed depends on a number of factors. Also, the quantity needed will vary––you will need anywhere from two pounds, when used as a supplement, up to 18 pounds, when used as a complete replacement for hay.

An alternative is to purchase chopped or shredded products such as ground hay or beet pulp shreds. Chopping or shredding the natural feedstuff does not change the original nutrient composition, with the exception that breaking the long stems into smaller sections often makes the fiber more digestible. Molasses can be added to the forage to improve taste and lessen dust. Beet pulp is a by-product of the sugar industry and is relatively palatable to horses. This product along with molasses is available through your local Co-op and can be fed either wet or dry.

Another line of products available to you will be pelleted forage products such as alfalfa, hay, soyhulls, or cottonseed hulls. The biggest concern with the use of these products is that the fiber length is considerable shorter, which cuts chewing time and increases passage rate. When feeding a pelleted forage product, I would recommend feeding no more that .25 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight. Feed scales and weight tapes can be purchased to assist you when determining the amount of feed needed and the weight of your horse.

A consideration when reducing the amount of forage needed in the horse’s diet is to look at products that will provide lower amounts of corn and higher amounts of fiber. Also consider feeds that will provide a lower amount of fat. Fat will coat fiber and reduces digestibility of the forage that you are providing.

Another suggestion would be to feed a product such as Stablyx. This low moisture supplement tub will increase fiber utilization while providing needed nutrients in the horse’s diet and is available at your local Co-op.

Also there are products with greater amounts of oats. These products will provide some energy without causing a starch overload keeping your horse calm, cool, and comfortable.

Finally, I would encourage you to look at any feeds that would be considered low starch and high digestible fiber. These products will also help you to stretch your forage. AFC horse feeds provided under these guidelines would include Excel 10, Excel 12, Champions Choice 12, Horizon Senior, and Tiz Wiz Senior.

Please remember, when making feeding changes, allow a 7 to 10 day transition period to reduce incidence of digestive disorders.

I hope that this information will help you in making decisions concerning the feeding of your horses. If I can assist you in any manner, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006