Equine Hay Purchases and Substitutes During Drought

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

When pasture resources are scarce and water is at a premium for growing hay, forage substitutes become an essential part of horse management. Hay prices often skyrocket during drought because of reduced yields and greater expense in putting up each bale of hay. What other supplemental feed can you provide that is safe for a horse’s gastrointestinal tract and provides sufficient nutrients and calories?

First, you will want to stock up on as much quality hay as possible to tide you over through tough times. It becomes critical to carefully evaluate hay quality during drought periods. You’ll want to investigate sample bales for weeds, dust and mold, and for excessive coarseness of stems and leaves. Also, look at what you are getting for you money--check that bales weigh a sufficient amount relative to the cost of the hay and also ask questions about blister beetles in alfalfa hay sources. It can help to obtain recommendations from other horse owners as to a dependable and ethical hay dealer.

In addition to buying as good a quality of hay as possible, ensure that the feeders you use for your horses provide as little wastage as possible. In some feeding situations, wastage can be as high as 20%, which is rough on your pocketbook and can also mean the difference between having enough hay to get through the season or not having enough.

In addition to hay as forage, there are other suitable substitutes that can amend up to half the hay diet. At least 60% of the daily diet should be roughage to accommodate gastrointestinal health.

One replacement for hay comes in the form of hay cubes, which is hay that is chopped and compressed into cubes. These are available in 50-pound bags as alfalfa or grass cubes, or a blend. Some studies have shown that feeding solely hay cubes tends to increase wood chewing and choking incidents, but in general, hay cubes are safe to feed. For horses with compromised dentition or greedy intake, it helps to wet or soak the cubes prior to feeding. Various amounts of cubes can be fed, using it as a sole source of roughage or as a feed “extension.”

Complete feed pellets are another means of providing a horse with a forage-based diet, which is essential for gastrointestinal health. These pellets usually include up to 25% grain products and beet pulp included with the compressed, chopped, pelletized or extruded hay products. If using as a sole source of nutrients, be sure to find a product that intended for use without hay. There are numerous types of complete feed pellets on the market, ranging from low carbohydrate to high fat, each with different caloric and energy provisions. Consult with your veterinarian as to the best choice for your individual horse.

Beet pulp products are extremely beneficial to use as a fiber (and calorie) substitute and to extend your hay supplies. Dry beet pulp pellets should be soaked in water for 6-8 hours before feeding. Caution must be taken when feeding to young or lactating horses because of the high calcium content that can offset the calcium to phosphorus ratio of daily intake. A vitamin-mineral supplement should be fed to complement the use of beet pulp. And, in hot weather it is prudent to soak only what will be used in the next meal since it can ferment and go sour if allowed to sit too long.

Rice bran provides only a marginal amount of fiber, but it does provide additional, safe calories in the form of fat, especially useful to an active horse.

Wheat bran on the other hand should not be fed in quantity because it is high in phosphorus and protein--no more than a pound should be fed daily along with balanced vitamin-mineral supplement.

Other substitutes that you may wonder about using include straw or lawn clippings. I have witnessed serious and lethal consequences of these two fiber sources:

  • Straw, while a reasonable fiber source, can lead to impaction of the large colon and/or cecum
  • Lawn clippings can lead to over-fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract resulting in colic, laminitis or potentially fatal stomach rupture.

So, if you are inclined to use these products, please consult your veterinarian first as to how much to use.

With a little creativity and forethought, you can supplement your hay sources with safe feed products to meet your budget and get your horses through a drought period.