Ask the Expert: When to Start Grazing

Question:  I’ve heard conflicting recommendations on when to start grazing my horses.   Is April 1st too early to start grazing?
 
Answer:  Spring grazing should be introduced slowly and delayed until grasses reach 6 to 8″ to optimize both the health of the horse and pasture.  Calendar date is not important as weather conditions and grass growth can very greatly from year to year.

When pastures reach 6 to 8″, begin grazing for 15 minutes, increasing the grazing time each day by 15 minutes until 4 to 5 hours of consecutive grazing is reached. After that, unrestricted or continuous grazing can resume.

We also recommend feeding horses their normal hay diet before turning them out to pasture during the first several grazing events of the year.  This strategy should help avoid rapid intake of pasture grasses.

Even though hay and pasture are both forms of forages, there are significant differences. A gradual change from one feedstuff to another provides enough time for the microbial populations to adjust, reducing the chance of colic and laminitis.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Ask the Expert: Testing for Moldy Hay

Our friends at the University of Minnesota Extension have helped to answer the question, how do you know if your hay is moldy? Equine expert Krishona Martinson, PhD, offers some tips below when it comes to hay testing.

Question:  I recently purchased some hay. I thought it was good quality, but I think the hay might be a little moldy. Can I test my hay for mold?

Response: Most forage testing laboratories can test hay (and other feed stuffs) for different types and amounts of molds. The costs average $40 and takes about one week to complete. The sample is collected and submitted similar to a hay analysis for nutrient value. Watch a YouTube video on how to collect a hay sample.

All hay will have some mold; no sample will have zero mold. Mold spore counts are given in colony forming units per gram (cfu/g). Hay with less than 500,000 cfu/g of mold is considered good quality. Hay with 500,00 to 1 million cfu/g is relatively safe, while hay with over 1 million cfu/g of mold should not be fed to horses due to the risk of respiratory issues. Most people can start to detect mold around 500,000 cfu/g.

If your hay is between 500,000 and 1 million cfu/g of mold, use precaution by pulling flakes apart before feeding, feeding outside or in a well-ventilated area, using a hay net to restrict the horses ability to bury their nose into the hay, and wetting the hay to reduce the amount of mold spores inhaled. Alternatively, you could look for a better quality hay or ask your hay supplier to exchange the hay for bales with a lower mold count.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Buying Hay, What Questions Should You be Asking?

hayOur friends at the University of Minnesota Extension have created a great guide to questions you should be asking when buying hay. Equine expert Krishona Martinson, PhD, offers some helpful suggestions below:

Q: What questions should I ask when buying horse hay?
A: Here are some questions horse owners should ask when purchasing hay:

  1. Have you sold to horse owners before or do you specialize in horse hay?
  2. What is the average weight of the bales? This is very important if buying hay by the bale.
  3. How mature is the hay? Maturity is the main driver of forage quality.
  4. What species are present in the hay? Legumes and grasses have different nutrient values.
  5. Where was the hay harvested? Rule out ditch hay.
  6. Was the hay rained on? Rained on hay is a good choice for horses with metabolic problems; it tends to be lower in nonstructural carbohydrates.
  7. Was the hay stored inside or under cover after baling? Hay stored inside or under cover has less storage loss.
  8. Was the hay field fertilized and/or sprayed for weeds? Show good management and likely a better quality product.
  9. What are the payment options?
  10. Is delivery available and if so, what is the cost?
  11. What is the price? Is there a price break for volume or cash?
  12. Is assistance available with onsite handling and stacking of hay, and if so, at what cost?
  13. How much hay do you have/bale each year? Helps ensure a consistent supply of hay.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Fall Pasture Management

Fall provides an ideal time of year to improve horse pastures. August 1st to September 15th is an ideal time of year to seed or overseed pastures and rid pastures of perennial weeds. Fall is the best time to seed or re‐seed pastures due to the usually adequate moisture, less weed competition and cooler weather conditions. Fall is also best for perennial weed control since perennial plants are storing carbohydrates in their roots allowing the herbicide to be translocated into the root for effective control.

Make sure to check fences; especially posts. Fix broken posts before they are frozen into the ground. Finally, make sure the pasture grasses have 3 to 4 inches of re‐growth going into winter. This will help with winter survival and a quicker spring growth. Keeping horses on pastures over winter causes damage to plants and offers the horse little nutrition. Keeping the horses in a sacrifice paddock (dry lot) with access to hay, water and shelter is recommended.

Horse owners should use caution when grazing after the first killing frost of the fall. Frost damaged pasture forages can have higher concentrations of non‐structural carbohydrates following the first killing frost of the season. This can lead to an increase in the potential for laminitis and colic, especially in obese horses or horses diagnosed with laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome. To reduce the chance of adverse health effects, it is recommended that horse owners wait one week before turning all horses, including healthy horses, back onto a pasture after the first killing frost.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Glycemic Response to Soaked Hay

Horse HayFor horses diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, obesity, laminitis and/or insulin resistance, the need for dietary management of nonstructural carbohydrate intake is necessary. One management tool horse owners can use is regulating the glycemic response in diseased horses, which is the effect food has on blood glucose levels after a meal. Past research has shown that soaking hay for 30 to 60 minutes reduces nonstructural carbohydrate levels; however, researchers have yet to explore if hay soaking has an effect on glycemic response. Recently, researchers at Middle Tennessee State University examined how soaked hay versus non‐soaked hay affected the glycemic response in horses.

Two different hay types were evaluated both as soaked hay and non-soaked hay; prairie grass and alfalfa. Wet hays were soaked in cold water for 60 minutes and 12 healthy horses (average of 17 years and 1,207 pounds) were fed the hays. Blood samples were taken immediately at the time of feeding and every 30 minutes for 2 hours, and every 60 minutes up to 5 hours.

Researchers found that horses had a higher glycemic response to alfalfa hay compared to prairie grass hay. However, there was no difference in the glycemic response to non‐soaked or soaked hay of either type. Over time, plasma glucose levels were higher in horses fed alfalfa versus grass hay.

Researchers concluded that although the type of hay fed influenced the glycemic response, no difference in physiological glycemic response was observed in healthy horses fed non-soaked or soaked hay. Additional research is needed to determine if soaking hay has physiological merit in horses diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome, obesity, laminitis and/or insulin resistance.

For more information on this study, click here.

For more information on hay soaking, click here.

Summarized by: Devan Catalano, BS, University of Minnesota.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Avoiding a Hay Belly

I’ve often heard, ‘my horse has a hay belly, what should I do differently?’ Or,” he’s really big in the belly but he doesn’t have good muscles.”   Apart from a broodmare belly, post-colic surgery effects or a parasite situation, the answer sounds like a nutritional imbalance.  The good news is, once you know what a nutritional imbalanced hay belly is and what causes it, you can make adjustments in your program and avoid it in the future.

What does it look like?

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Willow has had 4 foals, and as a result, tends to show characteristics of a hay belly.

Have you ever seen a young or growing horse with a big belly while the rest of their body looks small? Or a mature horse that has a midsection that hangs low, while ribs are visible and muscles along the back and hindquarter are hard to find?  How about the ‘pregnant gelding’ situation?  All of these are describing a hay belly.  On a regular basis, you should conduct a body condition score on your horse to check for muscle mass as well as appropriate fat deposition in key areas.  It’s important to check all areas indicated, since a rib or belly check alone doesn’t provide all the information.

What causes it?

When too many low-value calories are consumed without adequate protein (including essential amino acids), the body stores the calories as energy in cells yet the needed protein isn’t available to maintain muscle mass. In the absence of adequate protein, muscles atrophy while stored energy increases. Over time, a hay belly emerges as muscle mass over the top is lost and gut size may expand.

The biggest factor is overfeeding fiber high in Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) while under feeding adequate levels of quality protein. NDF is a measurement of cell wall content in plants such as grasses.  As the plant matures, it builds up stronger cell walls so that it may hold itself upright.  The stronger these walls, the less digestible these cells are for a horse.  So when fed very mature hay, your horse is less able to digest that hay, as compared to hay with a lower NDF value (less mature).  In addition to being higher in NDF, the grasses also tend to be lower in the quality proteins; important nutrients for developing and maintaining muscles.

How to prevent a hay belly

First, feed the best quality hay that you can find in the correct amount for your horse’s body weight, age and activity level. The hay that is smooth and ‘leafy’ tends to have levels of NDF that are better for the horse to digest. Hay that is pointy to the touch or looks like it’s a green version of straw should be avoided as it simply offers little nutritional value for the horse.

How do I get rid of a hay belly if my horse has one?

First, check the quality and quantity of hay your horse is eating. If the quality is adequate, then it’s time to reevaluate the quantity fed.  A horse should be fed 1.0-1.75 pounds/100 pounds of body weight of hay per day.  Not a fan of math? Yea, me neither.  Here’s a quick answer: for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds, that would be between 10-17.5 pounds of hay each day, ideally divided into 2 or even 3 feedings. Check to be sure you’re not inadvertently overfeeding, or underfeeding if your horse is actually bigger than 1,000 lbs. Learn to estimate your horse’s weight accurately here.

The last piece of the puzzle is feed. Make sure that the concentrate you provide is offering adequate quality protein.  Total protein alone can’t support or develop ideal muscles.  The right balance of amino acids is needed to build and maintain muscle quantity and quality.  Look for feeds that guarantee levels of Lysine, Methionine and Threonine.  These three key amino acids are the most important for your horse. And lastly, check to be sure you’re feeding the appropriate amount of concentrate.  Feeding a balanced diet and adding some exercise to help develop muscle mass and tighten up that tummy is a great way to reclaim that belly!

Group Feeding Tips for Small Facilities

Feeding TimeWe are a far cry from a fancy operation with four horses on my property to manage.  The horses in our herd live outside in one of two paddocks with fulltime access to a run-in shed which is divided in half.  They get rotational turn out onto the pasture whenever possible.

With the variety of horses we have, our little operation is anything but simple.  And oh how they vary!  One is a 32-year-old hard keeping Arabian mare with a princess complex who has progressively lost dentition efficacy in the last few years.  Next is her 14-year-old gelding son who is an air fern, aka quite possibly the world’s easiest keeper.  Finally the two Warmblood geldings, half-brothers both in light work.  One is a 16 hand, 10-year old fair doer while his brother (12 years) just under 16 hands, tends to be higher strung and a notch or two closer to being a hard keeper than his half-brother.

We feed good quality grass hay in small squares as we don’t have the storage space, equipment or desire to feed rounds. With these parameters, in combination with our variety of personalities, feeding time can be quite….interesting.  Over time, we’ve developed some strategies for making this living arrangement work.  Here’s a few you might consider if you have a similar herd situation:

  • Divide your herd by feeding needs and behaviors
  • Separate the bully of the herd.
  • If possible, put harder keepers with harder keepers, easy keepers with other easy keepers.
  • Keep an eye over time as the herd dynamics shift, the bullies can easily become bullied and go from ideal weight to underweight if you’re not checking regularly.
  • Check body condition score on a regular basis and be prepared to move horses around if dietary needs change.
  • Provide at least as many feeders as there are horses.  More if you can. Divide the ration of hay evenly among them.  This allows those who are bullied by others the chance to get what they need.
  • While on pasture, use a grazing muzzle on the easy keepers so that the harder keepers can have sufficient time with the forage.
  • When it comes to feeding concentrate, use paddock, pasture, round pens, arena etc.  to separate the herd.  This way, those who need a different feed type (example: ration balancer versus a senior feed) can get what they need and have time to eat it.
  • If you don’t have facilities to separate during the time to feed concentrate, consider guarding the slower eater so they can get sufficient time to eat their full ration. This may add time to the chore schedule, but it will help to ensure all horses are meeting their unique nutritional needs.

Keeping multiple horses with a variety of nutritional needs in a smaller space can be a challenge.  But with a little creativity and the right tools, you can be assured everyone gets what they need.  What ideas do you have to manage the variety of horses in your herd?

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.