One of the challenges for barn managers when hay is not the best or most feasible option is to find a suitable alternative. If you have a horse with a serious breathing problem or hay supplies are scarce or high priced, you need a replacement that will still keep horses healthy when forage choices are limited. There are a number of things that can be used for stretching meager hay supplies, and some can be used as a replacement for hay. But care must be taken to make sure these will actually work for the horses in your care.
FOR THE HORSE THAT CAN’T TOLERATE HAY
Stephen Duren, an equine nutritionist based in Idaho (Performance Horse Nutrition), says some horses have respiratory issues or a disease that dictates a forage alternative must be fed out to avoid the dust in hay.
It’s often safest to use pelleted forage or cubes, to reduce the amount of dust. “This eliminates the natural stir-up of dust that would occur with a flake of hay. Pellets or cubed products can be either grass or alfalfa. You can usually assume that this feed will be good quality, since manufacturers don’t put poor hay into pellets,” he says.
If you would still like to feed hay, “Just having good quality hay as the ingredient will eliminate some of the dust,” Duren says. Overly mature hay (brittle and shattering) or hay that was put up too dry (and dusty) or too wet (molding) causes the most problems.
“With some special-needs horses that require low sugar products because they are overly sensitive to carbohydrates, pelleted forage products work, as well—avoiding some of the grass hays that routinely have high sugar content or using pelleted alfalfa products. Some other fiber sources can be digested like hay—things like beet pulp and soy hulls,” says Duren. These provide fiber and are healthy for gut function, but are also highly digestible and provide good nutrition.
“Soybean hulls (seed coats) and beet pulp have about the same digestible energy content as oats, and they are safe to feed—like a fiber—but contain more energy than hay. We see a lot of forage extender pellets that use the combination of pelleted forage such as alfalfa or grass, with added alternate fiber sources such as beet pulp, soy hulls or alfalfa meal as a means for keeping fiber level high. These can be used as a forage substitute or forage extender. But they typically have a higher calorie content than hay,” he adds.
EVALUATE FIBER SOURCES
Some commercial feeds contain more than 20 percent crude fiber, and this is enough to keep the horse’s digestive tract healthy without any hay at all. But all fiber is not created equal. Many pelleted or cubed products that contain alternative fibers like beet pulp, but other products may rely on fiber sources such as rice hulls or straw. “These can help with gut fill, but be aware that non-digestible fiber sources are not supplying any nutrients,” says Duren. If you are paying a premium for something the horse gets no nutritional value from, you might want to reconsider. Pick a feed designed to be a hay replacement, so it will have the right combination of both digestible and less digestible fibers—more like what a horse would be eating if he were on hay and pasture, Duren says.