Estimating Winter Hay Needs

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm

Question: We recently purchased a farm and will be housing our two quarter horses over the winter. They are trail horses who are not ridden during the winter. Because I’ve always boarded my horses, I’m not sure how to estimate how much hay I will need for the winter. Can you provide some guidelines?

Response: An adult horse at maintenance will consume between 2 – 2.5% of their bodyweight in feed (hay and grain) each day. For example, a 1,000 pound horse fed a 100% hay diet would consume 25 pounds of hay each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 (when there is no pasture in MN), the horse would consume about 5,350 pounds of hay or 2.7 tons.
  • This would equal 107 fifty pound small square‐bales or six 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 214 small squarebales or 12 round‐bales.
  • It is critical to know the weight of the hay bales; not all bales weigh the same.

If the same horse was receiving 5 pounds of grain each day, their hay needs would be reduced to 20 pounds each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 the horse would consume about 4,280 pounds of hay or 2.1 tons.
  • This would equal 86 fifty pound small square‐bales or five 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 172 small‐square bales or 10 round‐bales.

These estimates assume good quality hay is fed in a feeder to reduced hay waste. When feeding small squares‐bales, hay waste when a feeder was not used (hay fed on the ground) was approximately 13% compared to only 1 to 5% when a feeder was used. When feeding large round‐bales, not using a feeder resulted in 57% hay waste compared
to 5 to 33% hay waste when a feeder was used. Its always best to purchase some extra hay since horses may require additional hay during the cold winter months (depending on their access to shelter).

Author: Krishona Martinson, PhD, Univ. of Minnesota. Reprinted with permission of the author. For other topics from the Univ. of Minnesota Equine Extension, visit their website.

Feeding Sunflower Seeds to Horses

Sunflower Seeds_Snack and Black Oil_BRSunflower seeds come in 2 basic classifications with some specialized varieties in each. Black oil sunflower seeds are primarily produced for sunflower oil production, and striped sunflower seeds are primarily produced for confectionary/human consumption.

  • Black oil sunflower seeds will be about 17% protein, 44% fat and 24% neutral detergent fiber (NDF).
  • Striped sunflower seeds will be about 16% protein, 24% fat and 40% NDF.

The hull of the sunflower is fairly tough and is not very digestible and the horse may not break all of the hulls when eating the seeds, so some may pass thru undigested. (The birds in your pasture will appreciate this!).

The black oil sunflower seeds are most readily available for purchase in bagged form as they are also popular for feeding birds and are the most widely used by horse owners. The oil content of black oil sunflower seeds is about 29% Omega 6 fatty acids and about .09% Omega 3 fatty acids. The oil is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which is why it is popular for human use.

The key element to consider in deciding if there is a good reason to use black oil sunflower seeds is to consider what you are actually adding to the diet and at what cost.

  • Current bagged retail price may be about $16.00-$20.00 per 20 pound bag.
  • This translates to $1600-$2000 per ton, which is fairly spendy for a horse feed!

If you feed a pound of black oil sunflower seeds, you are adding about 7 ounces of oil (less than a cup) and 2.72 ounces of protein with minimal digestible NDF or other nutrients. If you buy bulk soy oil, you should be able to add more oil at lower cost by adding straight oil and you will have a better Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio.

Black oil sunflower seed use for horses needs to be assessed basis what the ingredient actually adds to the diet and what the cost is compared to other ingredients or feeds.

The Value of a Horse Feed

On a recent visit to an area farm, the owner confided that she was considering making a feed change.  She said she did not have any problems with the current product she was using, but she thought she could go less expensive product since she was done showing for the season.

The current product she was feeding was $19.99 per 50lb bag.  She mentioned there was a local mill that had a feed for only $12.99, and the ingredients listed were the same.

I reviewed the tag with the customer and pointed out a few obvious differences.

  1. Feed ingredients are not listed on the tag in order of inclusion, like pet foods or foods for human consumption.
  2. Although the protein levels appeared to be the same, the bargain feed did not  guaranteed the amounts of limiting amino acids for the horse, lysine, methionine and threonine.
  3. The amount of vitamins and minerals were based on the proper feed rate for the horses weight.
  4. There was no mention of added biotin, prebiotics and probiotics, or chelating of vitamins and minerals.

We then did the math to see what she would save on 1 horse per day on the bargain feed.

Current Feed:   $19.99 /50lbs= $0.40 cents per pound

  • Feeding rate: 0.25 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight
  • 1200 x 0.25 = 3lbs per day
  • 3lbs x 0.40 = $1.20 per day

Bargain Feed:  $12.99/50 pounds= $0.26 cents per pound

  • Feeding Rate: 1%-2% Of Horse Body Weight per day for Maintenance
  • 1200 x 1.0 % = 12lbs per day
  • 12lbs x 0.26 = $3.12@ day
  • But it could go as high as 2% feed rate!
  • 1200 x 2.0% = 24lbs per day
  • 24lbs x 0.26 cents = $6.24 PER DAY!!

So, $1.20 per day vs.  $3.12 to $6.24 per day.  The value feed would cost an additional $1.92 -$5.04 per day to maintain a 1200 pound horse based on the manufacturer’s recommendations for a 1200 pound maintenance level horse.

The current feed was indeed a better value!  Now, this may be an extreme difference, but it does pay in the end to always do the math, even if the feeding rates or prices aren’t so different.  And don’t forget to factor in the value of additional things found in higher priced feeds such as prebiotics, probiotics, and biotin, that might not necessarily be reflected in the feeding rates.

Replacing Hay with Complete Horse Feed

A large boarding barn asked me to stop out and review their feed program as they were going to be making a change. The farm has over 100 horses in their care, and wanted to review the proposed change prior to placing their order.

They were currently feeding an economy pellet with an average feed rate of 6 pounds per horse per day. The new product the owner was considering is a mid range product that contains added fortification, as well as biotin and yeast culture. This would be a great enhancement to their current feed program, especially since their forage was not the best this year.

As I visited with the farm owner he explained that he was running dangerously low on his hay supply. He had priced hay from various sources, but the costs were excessive. He felt that if he transitioned the farm to a complete feed product, he could reduce his hay feeding rate by 50% per horse, and just use the complete feed.

He stated that even though the product was more expensive per ton than his current feed, but he would be saving money by feeding just the 6 pounds of complete feed per day. It was at that point that I realized he had not read the recommended feed rates for the product he was considering.

I agreed with the owner that complete feeds are an excellent choice to help balance a diet when forage is not readily available, or horses have a problem eating hay. I then went on to explain that he could reduce his hay feeding rate by 50% per horse per day, but he would need to compensate for the difference with additional complete feed beyond the 6 pound level of his traditional grain source.

Moral of the story: Complete feed products are great for horses with limited or no hay diets, but be sure you are following the recommended feed rates listed on the tag!

Stretching Your Horse Hay Supply

This article is courtesy of Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota.

Most horse owners have noticed that the price of feed (both hay and grain) has increased.  At a hay auction in Sauke Center, MN, the 10-year average for horse quality hay (101-125 relative feed value) is $100 a ton; however, this year (2013), that same hay is averaging $220/ton.  There are several key factors that have contributed to these increases, including extreme weather patterns (i.e. drought), high oil prices, currency fluctuations, a struggling economy, and a market that makes growing corn and soybeans more profitable and less risky compared to hay.     

Horses have evolved on diets composed entirely of forage. Therefore, forage should be the primary component of a horse’s diet (at least 2/3 of their diet). Thus, horse owners, unlike other livestock owners, have few options other than forages to use to meet their horse’s nutritional requirements. 

However, there are management practices that can help horse owners ride out high feed prices:

  • Horse owners should take a critical look at equine body condition and maintain a body condition score of 5 (on a scale of 1 to 9).
  • Horses that maintain their weight on forage-only diets do not usually require any concentrate (grain).
  • A well-formulated ration balancer (concentrated vitamin and mineral mix) will ensure that vitamin and mineral needs are being met when dried hay is the sole dietary component.  Even the best, nutrient-dense hay will be deficient in essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, copper, zinc, iodine, selenium and manganese (in alfalfa hay).

While all forage offered to horses should be free of dust, mold, weeds, and foreign debris, the nutrient density of the forage offered can vary depending on the type of horses being fed. Forage selection should be based on horse needs, as there is no one forage best suited for all classes of horses.

  • For example, providing nutrient dense forage like vegetative alfalfa hay to ‘easy keepers’ can create obesity issues; however, that same hay would be a good option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements.
  • Have hay tested for quality to help determine how much and what type is best to feed to individual horses.
  • Keep in mind that higher quality hay usually demands a premium price and such hay is not needed by all groups of horses. 
  • Finally, older hay, if stored properly, is usually a great option for horses. 

Plan ahead and know how much hay you need. Horses eat roughly 2 to 2.5% of their body weight in feed (hay plus grain) each day.  For example, an average 1,000 pound horse will eat around 20 to 25 pounds of feed daily, plus water. Weighing the amount of feed offered will help to avoid over-feeding. 

When calculating hay needs, make sure to account for wasted hay. In a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota, feeding round-bales to horses without a round-bale feeder resulted in 57% waste, while using different feeders ranged from 5 to 33% hay waste.  Although feeders do cost money, all round-bale feeders tested paid for themselves (due to reduced amounts of waste) in less than 10 months with hay valued at $200/ton.  A Texas study found that when horses were fed in a box stall, waste from feeding small square bales off the ground was 7% compared to only 1% waste when hay was fed in a feeder.  Using a feeder, regardless of bale-type, is essential to reducing waste and stretching your hay supply. 

Finally, have a good working relationship with a hay supplier to ensure a consistent and reliable source of hay.  Consider adding hay storage space to reduce the effects of price and seasonal fluctuations.  For example, hay is sometimes more expensive in the winter vs. the summer.  Buy hay early (do not wait for second or third cuttings) and budget for the price increase by re-evaluating how many horse you can afford to feed.

What Makes it ‘Premium’ Nutrition?

Aside from price, how do you know if a feed that is advertised as premium nutrition, really is? Here are some tips to help you decode the premium puzzle.

First, a word about forage….Forage, being hay and/or pasture, should make up the majority of your horse’s diet.  Therefore, the amount of effort and investment you make in your feeding program should be heavily weighted toward offering your horse the best quality forage you have access to.  Your feed selection should complement your forage. Feed or supplemental fortification should fill gaps in forage nutrition, but the most important aspect is the quality of forage, as that makes up the majority of your horse’s source of energy.  Always consider your horse’s forage first and foremost.

What is on a tag?  Onto the feed concentrate; the most important aspect of your feed choice is the nutrients the feed will provide for your horse.  When you buy premium nutrition, you expect to get premium results…but, what you pay for may or may not be what you get.  So how can you tell?

First, check the tag for guaranteed analysis of nutrients.  A premium feed will be formulated to deliver your horse the optimal nutrition for their age and activity level.  Each horse varies to some degree in their metabolism and requirements, but in most cases, optimal nutrition will be formulated to provide the most digestible nutrients in levels that ensure your horse makes the most of every meal. 

With regard to nutrient levels, is more actually better? Not always.  Sometimes more is just more.  Take into consideration minerals.  Mineral fortification of a diet is only as good as the amount that is absorbed, so having more copper, zinc or manganese listed on the tag doesn’t mean that your horse is making use of it all.  Look for key words that indicate digestibility; for minerals, ‘organic’ means the mineral is tied to an amino acid and is readily absorbed.  For proteins, look for guaranteed levels of ‘lysine’, ‘methionine’ and ‘threonine’.  These are the protein components that matter most to your horse.  Sometimes more is just…well more.

In the scoop…Another way to compare feeds is to determine y how much you have to feed to give your horse the optimal level of nutrients guaranteed on the tag.  Most feed companies formulate their rations to provide an amount of digestible energy (DE) which determines the rate (or amount) which they recommend you feed.  All other nutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals, are concentrated based on that feeding rate.

For example, you have two different feeds you are considering for your horse who is at a ‘maintenance’ level energy requirement (meaning to keep his body condition score at or about a 6).  Feed A recommends you give him 2.5 pounds per day, while feed B recommends you feed a minimum of 4 pounds per day.  Keep in mind that  if you feed less than the recommended 4 pounds of feed B, not only will your horse not get the DE for his activity level, he will also not get the optimal amount of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (if they are guaranteed). Keep in mind percentages on the tag are only as good as the rate at which they are fed.

Functional Ingredients…..There are ingredients that provide the diet with big nutrients such as fat, fiber and protein.  There are ingredients that provide micro nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins.  And then there is a whole other class of ingredients are called ‘functional’ ingredients.  These items are intended to enhance the efficiency or digestibility of the feed, meaning your horse gets more out of every bite.  Consider prebiotics and probiotics for example.   Through research, both of these functional ingredients have shown to enhance the digestibility of many nutrients and improve overall gut health.  The addition of prebiotics and probiotics to a diet is intendedto aid your horse in getting that optimal nutrition for a premium result!

Valid Research… One last thing to take into consideration; a feed brand or company that has a research program is far more likely to understand the digestibility of ingredients and the nutrient requirements of the horse, versus a company that does not conduct research.  Many aspects of optimal nutrition, such as understanding digestibility, aren’t found on a tag, but are proprietary to the researching company.  Before you consider a feed that is advertised ‘just as good as, only cheaper’, consider what makes the real deal.  In most cases, a company that copy-cats a popular product doesn’t get you to the same level of quality, premium nutrition as the original.

So, is it really a premium feed?   Check the tag to find out.  Armed with this information, you can answer this question for yourself!

All Flakes of Hay are Not Created Equal

I was called out to farm to review a horse that had started to lose weight.  The owner explained to me that the horse had been diagnosed with ulcers, so her vet recommended alfalfa hay. She purchased some nice quality second cutting, and had the test results which showed the hay to be exceptional quality, and containing 1Mcal (1000 calories) per pound. Thus, she could not figure out where the hole in the feeding program was that was causing the horse to lose weight. 

In review, her horses diet was calculated at 21.5 Mcal per day, based on his work schedule and body condition score:

  • 4 flakes of timothy hay per day
  • 4 pounds of grain  per day

Since the horse weighed in at 1000 pounds, we chose to go with 2% of his body weight per day in forage, or 20 pounds.  The old hay had tested at 800 calories per pound. We balanced the diet with 4 pounds of grain at 1430 calories per pound, or 1.43 Mcal.

  • Forage = 16 Mcal
  • Grain = 5.7 Mcal
  • Total = 21 .7 Mcal

The owner explained that she was feeding the same amount of hay as before, and since it was such good quality, it had to be a grain problem.

When we calculated his old diet, each flake of hay averaged 5 pounds each.  That was how we determined 4 flakes would reach the 2% or 20 pound feed rate.  I asked if she had weighed the new hay, and she admitted she had not done so yet.

To her surprise, when we weighed several flakes, they all averaged 3 pounds per flake.  When I showed her the math, the problem was obvious:

  • 1 Flake timothy hay 5lb@ x 4 flakes per day = 20 pounds per day x 800 calories = 16Mcal  (16,000 calories)
  • 1 Flake Alfalfa hay 3lb@ x 4 flakes per day = 12 pounds per day x 1000 calories = 12Mcal (12,000 calories)

With that simple change in hay, she had cut her horse’s caloric intake by 4,000 calories per day over the past month. Armed with this new information, adding more flakes of hay to the daily ration put the horse right back on track.

Weight a Minute!

I received a call from a customer that had just recently transitioned her farm from a mill mix to Safe Choice.  We had delivered 4 tons of bulk feed to her farm.  She was very upset that after 3 weeks on the feed the bin was almost empty.  She was convinced that the delivery truck had mistakenly only delivered 3 ton of feed.

I  contacted the freight company and our plant, both weight tickets confirmed a little over 4 tons of feed were delivered.  I then went out to visit the farm.

I talked with the farm owner and manager and reviewed the dietary program we had established for the horses.  All of them looked good, and some had put on additional weight in the three weeks on the feed.

A hanging scale, such as this (dirty) one is helpful to hang a bucket from and weigh feed. Note that the scale has been tared for a bucket.

The manager had her notes with the dietary recommendations for each horse, as we had weight taped and body scored all of them.  I then asked the manager to show me the feed cart and measures they were using.

She showed me what she believed to be a 3 pound coffee can.  She said that she would fill it to the top for the horses needing 3 pounds per feeding.  Those only needing two pounds would get the can filled to the second ring.  She said it was always accurate with their old mill mix.

I took the coffee can and filled it with feed.  When I poured it into my scale it weighed 4 pounds.  So in essence the horses were getting about 33% more feed, by weight not volume.   This spread over a few weeks accounted for the missing ton of feed!

A small weight scale is a great investment.  It can help take the guess work out of feeding  and also help you keep your horse healthy!

Ration Balancers vs Regular Horse Feeds

Gayle shows off her horse, IM ALittle Too Kool~ who is in wonderful condition thanks to a very well balanced diet!

I recently received a call from a horse owner that said she needed to put her horse on a diet. Her 1000 pound mare is a body condition score of 7. Her vet had recommended she put the mare on a ration balancer. When she priced products at the local feed store she thought that the price of a balancer was too high. Since her mare has free access to pasture, she felt that 1 pound a day of an economy feed would be good, with a few supplements. She was wonder what supplements would be best for her mare?

I told her she was on the right track to reduce the horse’s calories, but there was an easier way to put the mare on a healthy diet. I pointed out that the feed tag on the product she was feeding had a feeding rate of 0.5 pounds of feed for every 100 pounds of body weight. So, for her mare to get the proper fortification of vitamins and minerals listed on the tag, she would need 5 pounds per day.

Cutting the ration down to only 20% of the required feed rate and adding supplements could get costly, as well as establishing an imbalance in micro and macro minerals. I suggested she consider a ration balancer. The concentrated nutrient levels allow for low feeding rates. A good quality balancer will contain prebiotics and probiotics to help support nutrient digestion. They will also feature guaranteed levels of biotin to support muscle, hair coat and hoof development. In addition they will also have guaranteed levels of amino acids to support muscle maintenance and development. Not to mention that a quality balancer will also use organic trace mineral complexes to increase bioavailability and protein utilization.

When we compared the balancer to top dressing the economy feed, the balancer was a much better value on a cost per day basis.  That’s why it’s always important to do the “cost per day” math, rather than getting fixated on the price tag on the bag, and remember to include the cost of supplements needed if a lower-quality, less expensive feed is being investigated.

Horse Feed: More Than Just Percentages

A hanging scale, such as this (dirty) one is helpful to hang a bucket from and weigh feed. Note that the scale has been tared for a bucket.

Horse owners frequently compare feeds based primarily on the information on the feed tag or supporting data from web sites.  While this is a quick comparison to make, it may not always be the best comparison.  Why, you ask? Well, what is most important to the horse is the total amount they actually consume.  To get this number, the percentage in the feed must be multiplied by the amount fed, making sure to account for different unit of measurements, such as supplements that are fed in ounces instead of pounds.

One example where this is important is with the protein percentage.  As ration balancer horse feed products are becoming more and more popular, some folks see that they typically have 30% protein or more, and worry that the level is way too high for a horse.  But with a ration balancer, a 1000 lb horse only gets 1-2 pounds of the product a day, compared to 4-6 lbs of a more traditional 12% feed.  So, if we do the math, here’s what we see:

  • 30% protein X 2 lbs of feed = 0.6 lbs of protein a day from a ration balancer
  • 12% protein X 5 lbs of feed = 0.6 lbs of protein in a day from a traditional feed

Another example where this calculation is useful is in the variety of fat supplements available on the market today. 

  • A powdered fat supplement has 99% fat, being fed at a rate of 2 oz a day, adds 0.124 lbs of fat to the daily diet.
  • A stabilized rice bran supplement that has 22% fat, fed at a rate of 2 lbs per day, adds 0.44 lbs of fat to the daily diet.

And of course, on top of this, we must ALWAYS remember to factor in the hay – not just the grain.  A horse will consume much more hay per day than grain, so the difference in a few percentage points is magnified when looking at the hay portion of the diet.  It may take a little math, but looking beyond the percentage of a particular nutrient is something your horse would thank you for if he could speak!