Hay Alternatives for Horses

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buckskin horse hay alternatives

With the potential of a hay shortage this year, you should understand the alternatives you have.

This year most of the country has suffered from drought conditions, and local hays might be in short supply. Waiting until the last minute to source hay will be risky as hay availability continues to decrease. Therefore, owners might want to familiarize themselves with alternative forage sources that could be used to supplement their horses' diets. 

Other reasons for using alternative forage sources include space limitations—such as that you don’t have a huge hay loft to store four or five months’ worth of hay—more compact sources of forage should be considered.

No matter the breed or intended use, all horses require fiber in their diets. Good-quality hay or pasture should make up at least half of most horses' diets. Horses will readily eat many types of grass and legume hay, especially if it is of high quality. In absence of these quality sources, horse owners must find alternative fiber options. Some common alternatives include hay cubes, forage pellets, complete feeds, and fiber byproducts.

Chopped Hay

Hay chopped to a length of one inch can be successfully used in a ration by adding the grain mixture directly to the hay. One can easily vary the forage-to-grain ratio without changing the feedstuffs when the horse's requirements change. Chopped hay might become dusty and need molasses or vegetable oil to keep down the dust.

Hay Cubes

Hay Cubes are an excellent fiber source for horses, and they are generally easily accessible at most feed stores. Hay cubes usually are 2 inch by 2 inch cubes and made from coarsely chopped hay. Cubes can be made from a variety of hay types and can be bagged and purchased with a composition guarantee on the bag. Storage and handling ease and decreased wastage are advantages that might offset the increase in purchase price.

If offered voluntarily, most horses will consume more hay cubes than hay, so owners should measure and monitor their horses' intake. Hay cubes can be fed just like hay, at a 1:1 ratio of the like hay type the horse currently consumes. For example, if a horse consumes five pounds of timothy hay at each feeding, replace that with five pounds of timothy hay cubes and adjust if needed to maintain the animal's proper weight. 

Hay cubes are heavier in weight, so you'll need to weigh them to ensure the horse is getting the proper amount of forage. 

Hay cubes can be hard, so it is also recommended that hay cubes be soaked for 10 minutes before feeding to soften them. A secondary advantage to wetting hay cubes is it can slow down the rate of intake by the horse.

Forage Pellets

To make forage pellets, manufacturers grind dried forage, most commonly alfalfa or grass blends, to a small particle size, then make it into a pellet. The premise is to make the forage as convenient as possible without the dust usually associated with conventional hay. 

Forage pellets can also be used in conjunction with hay to improve the overall quality of a diet or as a way to sneak more forage into the diet of a horse that eats too little hay. 

For horses with dental issues, pellets can be wetted and made into a mash or slurry. 

Un-softened hay pellets can be hard, so care should be taken when feeding them to horses that bolt their feed. 

The quality of a forage pellet is usually consistent, and the form makes them easy to digest.

Byproducts

Beet pulp, produced by sugar beet processing, is a popular fiber source for horses because of its digestibility and palatability. Studies have shown that a horse's diet can contain up to 55% beet pulp without negative effects. It's important to remember, however, that beet pulp's digestibility is higher than most grass hays, so ensure the horse's diet is balanced properly when making the switch. 

The protein content of beet pulp is low so it is important to properly fortify the diet with additional protein if beet pulp is the primary forage source.

Brans, such as rice bran and wheat bran, are another option, but they are often less desirable due to their high phosphorus concentrations. If feeding bran, ensure the horse is consuming adequate calcium to keep the calcium to phosphorus ratio to at least 1:1. Additionally, remember that rice bran contains high fat levels, so it should not be used in overweight or obese horses.

Not Recommended

Lawn grass clippings are unacceptable feed for horses. The small particle size and high moisture content of grass cut with a lawn mower results in rapid fermentation in warm weather. Feeding lawn clippings and garden refuse to a horse can lead to colic, laminitis, and/or death.

Haylage and silage should also be avoided. These forages are sealed in airtight containers with increased moisture content to promote fermentation of the forage. Because of the moist, airtight environment, the bacteria that cause botulism might grow if the forage is improperly baled or stored. 

For more information from Standlee Premium Western Forage, please visit their website