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Hay Substitutes

Alternative Forage for Horses When Hay is Not Available

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When hay becomes scarce it often leaves horse owners scrambling to keep their horses healthy and well fed. Any number of natural disasters can affect the growth of hay fields. In most areas of North America, farmers are able to harvest two hay crops per season. Some areas may even be able to get a third 'cut'. But drought, late springs, floods and other disasters can mean the growth will be sparser and the cuts will be fewer. Less hay means not only is it harder to find, but it will cost more per bale. Horse owners may have to ship hay in from other areas, and that too can add to the cost, and of course take more time to source and transport.

If a horse does not get enough bulk fodder it may cause problems like ulcers (EGUS) and colic and because horses are grazers who spend most of their time chewing, they may nibble on wood fences, stall partitions or trees to satisfy the need. It's recommended that at very minimum a horse should eat 1% of it's body weight in fodder. Ideally a horse should eat 2-2.5% of it's weight in good quality fodder--hay or grass.

Horses need the bulk fiber of hay to stay healthy. Although they can eat grain, they still need a forage substitute that provides the +20% fiber content that good pasture or hay provides. There are a few things that you can feed horses as substitute to hay. Whatever you decide to feed, it's important to start feeding any of these fodder substitutes gradually and carefully monitor your horse's condition.

Beet Pulp

Beet Pulp Pelts
Image: K. Blocksdorf

Beet pulp is a by-product of the sugar beet and is often fed to horses. Many horse owners notiice that when they feed beet pulp,  horses eat less hay. Feeding beet pulp is easy and it can be fed dry or wet. In hot weather, wet beet pulp can sour and in cold weather, freeze to the feed tub. Beet pulps contains fiber, calcium, protein but no vitamins. Beet pulp can be fed in combination with hay or other fodders and a complete concentrate.

Straw

If you read books about horse care in bygone times, you might be aware that straw was commonly fed to horses. You may have a horse that is quite happy to munch on its straw bedding. Most of us view straw as bedding only. Straw is the stalks of harvested grains. Because the plant has come to the end of its life cycle, it has no nutrition. But used in combination with a concentrate that provides ample nutrition that includes mineral, vitamins and proteins, oat straw can give horses something to graze on. Rye straw may carry a fungus that can affect mares in foal. Wheat and barley straw are less appealing to horses. Youngsters or seniors may not be able to digest straw easily.

Hay Cubes

Hay Cubes
Image: K. Blocksdorf

Hay cubes may be an alternative to bales. Grass and legume hay is dried and chopped and pressed into cubes. The downside of hay cubes is that there is an increased chance of choke if they are fed dry and they don't fulfill the horse's need to chew. I never feed hay cubes dry, but soak them until the cubes fall apart. Because hay cubes tend to be expensive, they could be used in combination with poorer quality hay.

Silage, Ensilage or Haylage

Feeding Silage, ensilage or haylage is popular in some areas, but it does come with risks. The benefit to farmers is that it can be bagged at about 45% moisture, so it can be harvested in damp conditions. Because it isn't dry, it's beneficial to feed horses because there is no dust—good for horses with COPD and other respiratory problems. The downside of silage or haylage is that there is a chance of botulism poisoning. Handling can be tricky because the bag must not be punctured during storage. If you plan to feed haylage, ensilage or silage you should have your horse vaccinated for botulism before you start feeding this fodder.

Concentrates

pelleted feed
Image: 2007 K. Blocksdorf

Concentrates, available in many forms, can ensure that your horse is getting the nutrition it needs and makes up for any shortfalls in the fodder you may need to feed. There are a lot of different forms and vitamin/mineral/protein/fibre combinations, so you'll need to examine the labels and match the concentrate to your horse's needs. Feeding concentrates by themselves is not recommended. Your horse will still need a source of fibre.

Alfalfa

Often, legumes like alfalfa will grow in conditions that grass won't grow in. Because alfalfa is high in calcium, it's important to make sure the horse is getting concentrates or supplements that balance its diet. Alfalfa should be fed in combination with grass hay.

Old Hay

Image: 2005 K. Blocksdorf

Yes, you can use hay from previous years as long as it has been kept clean and dry. The nutritional content will decline over time, but that can easily be made up with concentrates. Testing is the best way to figure out how to make up for any shortfalls.

Don't Feed

Brans, including wheat and rice bran are not recommended as major part of your horse's diet. All can cause mineral imbalances. Don't be tempted to throw lawn clippings, garden refuse or compostables over the fence. All can contain plants toxic to horses.

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