Manage Pasture to Help Control Horse Feed Costs

Widgy in Grass_BRManaging pasture can be a very important tool in controlling feeding cost for all livestock, particularly horses being kept on small acreages.  If pasture is going to provide a substantial amount of the required nutrition for a horse, it takes about 2-3 acres per 1100 pound adult horse.

There are a number of key steps in managing pastures, particularly small acreages

  1. Do not turn the animals out on pasture too early in the spring.  Forages need some growth to recover from the winter and allow root systems to develop.
    1. Do not turn animals out on tall cool season grasses such as brome grass and orchard grass until the plants are 8-10 inches tall.
    2. If pastures are short cool season grasses such as Kentucky blue grass or rye grass, the plants should be 6-8 inches tall before grazing.
    3. If you do not know your pasture composition, err on the side of allowing adequate growth before grazing.
  2. Remove animals from the pasture when plants are grazed down to 3-4 inches in height.  Grazing too early or too long and allowing animals to eat the grass off too close to the ground will kill the grass and turn the pasture into a dirt lot where the only green plants are weeds, requiring expensive renovation.
  3. If you have limited acreage, consider purchasing some temporary fencing so that you can rotate the pasture.
    1. The outer fencing should be a safe, permanent fencing.
    2. You can cross fence the pastures with temporary fencing such as capped steel posts and appropriate electric wire.
    3. By allowing the animals to graze one section, then moving them to another section to allow the first section to recover, total pasture yield can be increased substantially, helping to control total feed costs.
    4. Clip and drag the pastures after you pull the animals off to control weeds and control parasites and flies.
  4. Make certain that fresh clean water is available at all times and that salt is available at all times.  If you are not feeding a balanced horse feed or ration balancer, offer appropriate mineral free choice as well.
  5. If space is very limited, keep a dry lot area where animals can be fed and watered to prevent areas of pasture from being overgrazed.
  6. Check with your local extension team for additional recommendations for your area and for recommendations on fertilizing pastures.  Dr. Krishona Martinson at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN has published some excellent guidelines for pasture management.

A small investment in supplies to allow pasture to be managed and rotated can pay for itself in higher pasture yields.  Managing the pastures and selecting the right feeds can help manage total yearly costs as well as improve animal health and condition.

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Spring Pasture Time for Horses!

Toby GrazingIntroducing horses to growing pasture is a welcome event each year, yet must be approached with caution. Introducing the horses to pasture too soon in the season or for too long a time period can be bad for both the pasture and the horses.

The following are some guidelines to consider:

  1. Do not turn the horses out on pastures too early. Grass needs time to recover from the stress of winter and should be allowed to re-grow to 6 to 8 inches in height, depending on the species, to allow roots to grow and to store some energy before being grazed.
  2. Horses should be fed hay before going out on pasture the first time. Do not turn them out with empty stomachs!
    1. Initial grazing should be limited to 15 to 20 minutes and gradually increased each day by 15 minutes until the horses are out for about 4 or 5 hours, at which time they can be allowed unrestricted time.
    2. If horses are allowed too much initial grazing time, the risk of digestive disturbance is increased as it takes the microflora in the gut some time to adjust to the difference in forage source.
  3. Do NOT overgraze! Pastures should not be grazed to below 3-4 inches in grass length or you will wind up with a dirt lot fairly quickly. Some weeds are also hardier than most grasses, so if pastures are over grazed, weeds will become more prevalent.
  4. Remember that cool season grasses growing very rapidly can be high in plant sugars (fructans), so caution is in order.
  5. Grazing muzzles might be an option for helping reduce rapid intake.

Proper introduction of horses back on pasture needs to be managed for the health of the horses and the health of the pastures!

Your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

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Composting Horse Manure

Compost PileHorses give their owners a lot of joy – and a lot of waste. One horse can create more than 8 ton of manure per year – and that doesn’t include the soiled bedding or uneaten feed! So what do you do with all that waste? If your horse is stalled or in a small paddock, chances are you have, somewhere on your property, a large pile of what your horse has left behind. But is that pile working for you? Is it heating, decomposing and turning into rich organic matter that you can add to your yard or garden, or sell to your neighbors? Composting can help turn that pile of waste into a manageable cache of valuable nutrient matter.

Why Compost? 
Compost has numerous benefits, including:

  1. Fly control
  2. Odor control
  3. Reduced runoff
  4. Less chance of worm re-infestation
  5. Improved relationships with your neighbors (refer #1 and #2!)

How to Compost

  • To get started composting, you want to pick your site. An ideal site is one that is dry and relatively close to your stall or paddock (to make your work easier).
  • Once you’ve selected your site, you can start adding your material. Straw, shavings, manure, left over hay can all go into the compost pile.
  • For the pile to heat appropriately, it needs to be at least 3 ft. square.
  • Keep your pile about as damp as a wet sponge on a continuous basis. You can water the whole pile with a garden hose periodically or water each wheelbarrow load that you add.
  • Ventilation is important. You can turn your pile by hand, but this becomes a real chore as your pile grows each day. Consider placing PVC “chimneys” in the middle of the pile instead. These are lengths of PVC pipe placed vertically with small holes drilled along the length. This will encourage air flow through the pile.

You may want to have more than one compost pile going at a time. One pile could be the one you add to daily, while the second is a completed pile that is resting and decomposing.

How do you know it’s done?

Once your pile reaches the desired size, you want to rest it for a time so that it can completely breakdown. Exactly how long to let it rest will depend on the size of your pile, as well as the season and climate. An average size pile in the warm summer weather may take 2 – 3 months to decompose completely, while the same pile may take up to 5 months in the winter when temperatures are colder and decomposition is slowed. Your composting is complete when, after the allotted amount of time, the material in the pile is crumbly in texture, has an “earthy” scent, and no longer resembles the original material in any way. This rich organic matter is a great soil amendment; you can apply it to your garden or yard, or sell it to help fund your horse habit!

There are lots of great resources for composting. If you’d like more information, you can contact your local extension office or conservation district.

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Feeding the Maintenance Horse

Vitamin in half

Feeding below the recommended amount of a particular horse feed, is analogous to only taking half of your daily vitamin.

I am fortunate in my job to speak with horse owners face-to-face on a frequent basis. During these conversations, I enjoy hearing about the horses they own and how great their horse’s look and perform.

Occasionally, I will hear someone mention that their horse looks great on hay alone and they only feed a ‘handful’ of grain in the morning and night, just for the vitamins and minerals.

I delicately point out that the analogous human activity would be chopping your daily vitamin into pieces and taking a fraction of one a day. This is an opportunity to discuss feeding rate, calorie requirements, muscle and hair coat quality, and making sure owners have selected the right feed for their horse.

In many of these instances, the horse in question is an adult in good body condition, on a good quality forage and light work load; in other words, a horse at maintenance activity level.  Even though this horse may be able to keep a good body condition score, without balanced nutrition, they will exhibit less-than-ideal muscling, hair coat and hoof quality.

A well-intentioned owner of this kind of horse might feel they need to provide some form of nutrition supplementation to their hay, as they should, but may not fully understand what is needed or the appropriate quantities. Feed, being as complicated as it can be, is often misinterpreted and either under or over fed. Here’s where we can help!

If a maintenance horse is in good or better-than-good body condition (a 6+) from their hay or pasture alone, they really don’t need more calories in the diet. But they do need something to fill in the gaps that the hay or pasture is not providing. These include vitamins, minerals and quality proteins (amino acids) their body needs for normal tissue repair, hair growth and muscle maintenance.

For this horse, a ration balancer is the ideal solution. A ration balancer (sometimes called diet balancer) is a concentrated form of feed without the energy provided by fats, fibers, starch and sugar of a regular feed. Ration balancers tend to have higher guaranteed levels of nutrients, but significantly lower feeding rates. Don’t panic! A protein level of 30% with a feeding rate of 2 pounds per day means your horse gets 0.6 pounds of protein. Compare that to feeding 6 pounds of a 14% regular feed = 0.84 pounds of protein per day. When you do the math, it’s really in line with a “normal” diet.

If this same horse would be slightly below ideal body condition, a feed designed to be fed to maintenance horses would be appropriate for calories and the balance of other nutrients. Be sure to follow the feeding rates and keep a close eye on how your horse responds to the feed, as you may need to adjust within the feeding rate guidelines.

When it comes to calorie management of the maintenance-level activity horse, remember to watch out for those treats, too. Calorie levels can vary widely so all the work you’re doing to manage intake with the feed scoop can easily be washed away with an indulgence in treats!

Feeding a horse at a maintenance activity level doesn’t have to be complicated. With a few pieces of information and the right feed, your horse can look and feel their best, even if they aren’t heading for the show pen.

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Is City Water OK for My Horse?

The question comes up from time to time if municipal water supplies are OK for horses. The concern is generally related to the added chlorine or added fluoride in the water. The water is treated with chlorine to minimize risk of bacterial contamination, and the fluoride is added to improve human dental health.

The chloride may change the aroma and taste of the water. Taking horses to facilities with chlorinated water can sometimes reduce water consumption. Reduced water consumption may impair performance and may also increase the risk of impaction colic. Horses do adjust to the difference in taste and aroma over time, but this may take a few days. It is routine in many barns to flavor the water with something like wintergreen or peppermint at home, then flavor the water at the new location or while traveling to match the home water.

  • NOTE: Do NOT use soft drinks that contain caffeine or any material containing caffeine as these can trigger positive drug tests!

The fluoride levels in municipal water supplies are normally at about 0.5 to 1.0 mg/liter of water. The maximum dietary allowance for horses is about 4-8 mg/liter (Source: Mineral Levels in Animal Health-Diagnostic Data, Second Edition, R. Puls), so the level in municipal water is well below any levels associated with heath risk for horses.

Municipal water should be OK for horses. When changing water sources, consumption should be monitored to make certain horses continue to consume adequate water with flavoring the water being an option when traveling. As always, salt should be available free choice.

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Horse Feed Tag Mathematics

It takes some time and math skills to properly understand how the guaranteed analysis relates to what your horse is actually taking in every day!

It takes some time and math skills to properly understand how the guaranteed analysis relates to what your horse is actually taking in every day!

We often receive questions from horse owners, wondering what the various units of measure on horse feed tags mean, and how they can use those units to figure out what their horse is consuming…and wondering why in the world they have to be so confusing, too!

In short, feed companies use the units of measurements on nutrients that we do, because we are required to. Why? Because horse feeds and other livestock feeds are labeled as required by AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) and the various state Feed Control regulations.  These regulatory bodies establish the units which are to be used for each nutrient in tag guarantees.

To break it down, there are 4 common units used on feed tags.  To help you understand them all, here’s a quick overview of how they work, along with examples of how to do the appropriate math:

Protein, amino acids, fat, fiber and macro minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium) are listed as a % minimum or maximum.

  • To calculate the amount supplied per pound, you can convert % to a decimal fraction by moving the decimal point 2 places to the left, then multiply by the pounds fed.
  • As a horse’s daily intake requirements are sometimes given in grams, we can convert those pounds of intake to grams as well.
    • For those of us that are mathematically challenged, a quick Google search of “pounds to grams” will provide a handy conversion calculator!

Example:

  • A feed that is 14% protein would contain 1 lb x 0.14 = 0.14 lb of protein in 1 pound of feed.
    • If you want to measure in ounces, there are 16 ounces per pound, so the same pound of feed would contain 0.14 x 16 = 2.24 ounces of protein.
    • If the requirements are given in grams, we know that there are 453.6 grams per pound, so the feed would contain 453.6 x 0.14 = 63.5 grams of protein per pound of feed.
  • Feeding 5 lbs of this feed per day, results in feeding 0.7 lbs, or 11.2 ounces, or 317.5 grams, of protein per day.

Trace minerals (copper, zinc, manganese and selenium) are expressed as “ppm” or parts per million.

  • One part per million is the same as one milligrams per kilogram.
  • 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds.

Example:

  • Premium horse feeds are commonly tagged at 0.6 ppm selenium.
  • This is 0.6 mg/kg of feed. This equals 0.273 mg per pound of feed.
  • 0.6 mg/kg divided by 2.2 kg/lb. = 0.273 mg per pound of feed
  • Feeding 5 lbs of this feed per day, results in feeding 1.365 mg per day of selenium.

Vitamins A, D and E are expressed in IU/lb.

  • An IU is an International Unit and is based on the effectiveness of a particular vitamin.
  • There are some rather complicated conversions of different Vitamin sources to International Units, which is why animal requirements are given in International Units, so no further conversion is needed.

Example:

  • A feed that lists 100 IU/lb of Vitamin E, fed at 5 lbs per day, provides 500 IU’s per day.

Vitamin C (or Ascorbic acid) and Biotin are normally expressed as mg/lb or milligrams per pound.

  • Usually only tagged on senior horse feeds.
  • Requirements are in mg of intake per day, so no further conversion is needed.

Example:

  • A feed that lists 75 mg/lb of Vitamin C, fed at 5 lbs per day, provides 375 mg per day.

Still confused?  Don’t worry about it. Just leave us your questions in the comments section below, and we’ll be happy to help you out!

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Quidding – More Than Just a Funny Word

Quidding of HayIf you’ve walked by your horses feeding area or water trough and noticed slimy balls of half chewed food laying on the ground, your horse may be quidding. Quidding is a response to mouth pain in which the horse loses or spits balls of semi-chewed food stuffs out of their mouth.

The most common cause of quidding is teeth that are uneven or that have sharp points. This does not allow the mouth to close properly and makes chewing extremely difficult.  There is a host of other mouth issues that can lead to this problem as well, including cavities, abscesses, and unseen injuries. This problem most commonly occurs in older horses, however all ages can be affected.

Besides the fact that quidding is an indicator that there is something wrong (and probably painful) in your horse’s mouth, this is an issue for a very simple reason: if the feed is falling on the ground, it is not being ingested and used by your horse. This can result in loss of weight and body condition as the horse may only swallow a fraction of what is being fed.  In fact, one of the first things you should check if your horse starts dropping weight and losing body condition is the condition of the teeth and mouth.

The good news is that quidding can be greatly improved or even cured all together with regular dental care by your veterinarian or an equine dentist. Often a process called floating the teeth can help file down sharp or uneven places on the teeth. Dental exams should happen at a minimum of once per year, even on healthy horses with no known problems. For horses who have dental issues, the check ups and/or treatments may be prescribed more often.

In addition to regular dental exams, a horse with dental issues should be fed a feed that is easy to chew and digest. Make sure the ration is nutrient-dense to make the most out of what they do take in and, if necessary, consider switching the horse with severe dental problems over to a complete feed that may be soaked to soften before feeding.

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5 Things I’ve Learned Working for a Feed Company

I am fortunate to count myself among those who grew up with horses.  My mother had grown up with a horse as her pet (Babe was her name) and much of what I learned came from how she had managed her horse.  This meant that I grew up with a …how to say….‘traditional’ mindset about nutrition; ‘hay and sweet feed now and then is all any horse needs’ and that is what my horse was fed….until I started working for a feed company.  Then, my nutritional education hit the fast lane!  Here are the top 5 things that I have learned about nutrition and management as a result of working for a feed company.

1. The purpose of feed.  Growing up, we’d use feed as bait to bring the horses off the pasture, a reward after a good ride (after properly cooling out of course) or on very cold days, but certainly not every day.  Most feeds are designed to provide a horse with the nutrients that hay or pasture alone cannot.  Many people think of feed as simply providing ‘energy’ which, many of them do.   When it comes to feed, you generally get what you pay for, so very often, the less expensive feeds are designed to provide the minimum amount of nutrition.  That’s why it’s important that you select the right feed for your horse so that they are getting the balance of nutrients that fit their needs, be it energy, biotin or high quality proteins, fed consistently.  Once you find the right nutrition for you horse, you might be amazed at how good they look and how happy they seem.

2. Paying more for feed can save money in the long run.  I used to feed an inexpensive sweet mix to my horse and spent my money on supplements to provide what the feed didn’t, as opposed to feeding her a fully fortified feed.   For the most part, a high quality, fortified feed that is fed at the right amount removes the need for most supplements and, you might be surprised to find it can be cheaper.  There are a few exceptions where it is either illegal or extremely difficult to include specific nutrients in a feed, such as joint support (it is against the law to include any ingredient that is considered a drug in horse feed).   In those instances, it does make sense to add a supplement to provide what the feed can not.

3. Feeding directions do make a difference.  Feeding directions matter because most feeds are formulated to provide a specific concentration of nutrients based on the pounds (not scoops) that are fed, which is a ratio of your horse’s weight.  In order to feed at the recommended levels, you need to know how much your horse weighs and how much your feed weighs.   Growing up, we just fed a ‘scoop’ regardless of the horse or feed.  Taking this approach will often mean under or over feeding your horse. If you start to feed at the recommended feeding levels and notice your horse not being in ideal body condition, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate whether you’re feeding the right feed.

4. Those extras actually do count for something.  I used to think that some of the extra ‘stuff’ that was provided in a fully fortified feed was just foo-foo dust or tag dressing. One of my biggest ‘ah ha’ moments came when I realized that (at least with Nutrena feeds) it’s not just adding another line to the guaranteed nutrients tag; it’s really providing a benefit to the horse.  I saw it when I switched my horses away from a local mill sweet mix.  The little things that are added do make a visible improvement in hoof quality, hair coat and even muscling.

5. Knowing your horse is the best way to feed him.  Horses are individuals; as a rider, that is evident.  However, I used to think that when it came to nutrition, there was very little variation.  How wrong I was!  Unlike production animals, humans have been selectively breeding horses for attributes other than feed efficiency.  Therefore, the general horse population has a wide range of nutrition needs from the easy keeper to the hard keeper and everything in between.  Staying closely tuned into your horse, changes in his performance, attitude and body condition score throughout the year and how he reacts to his feed and forage is all part of managing him as an individual.  When his job changes (increase or decrease in workload) or he reaches the next life stage, it’s important to reevaluate his feeding program to provide him what he needs.

I have learned so much about nutrition and management during my time as an employee of a feed company.  My assumptions have been challenged.  My knowledge expanded.  Thanks to scientific research, my horses now enjoy an improved level of nutrition, performance and appearance, and so can yours!

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Feeding Oats to Horses – The Whole Picture

For decades, oats have been a staple in the feeding program of horses. Often considered a ‘safe’ grain option, there are pros and cons to this long-loved feed option. Upon closer examination, the nutrient profile of oats may surprise you. Read on and see the whole picture of oats.

Variability  - Oats are grown in many parts of the United States, Europe and Canada.  Depending on the genetic variety, growing conditions, soil type, management and harvest conditions, the nutrient content and quality of oats can vary widely.   Take for example the starch content which can range from 32% all the way up to 43%!  Variability of nutritional content can be high in oats.

Balance – Calcium and phosphorus work together to build strong bones and muscles, but they need to be in a balanced ratio to be absorbed and to work effectively.  For a horse, a ratio of 1:1 (calcium to phosphorus) is the minimum, but can range up to 6:1 and still be effective and healthy.  Generally speaking, oats have inverse calcium: phosphorus ratio and on average run 0.06% calcium to 0.45% phosphorus.

Starch level – The ‘low starch’ movement of the past decade has redefined what “low” is.  Low, being a relative term, historically may have meant anything below corn, which runs on average 65% starch.  So what is the starch level of oats?  The level of starch in oats can range from 32% up to 43%, however, the digestibility of the starch found in oats tends to be higher than in other cereal grains.  To put this into persecptive, take into consideration that ‘low’ starch feeds today run around 11-14%, and even oats are starting to look high!

Amino Acid Deficiancy – The building blocks of protein, amino acids such as lysine, methionine or threonine are required to effectively build and maintain muscle.  Though present in oats, the variability of levels is high and there are no guaranteed or consistent levels.

Digestibility – Processing oats by de-hulling, crimping, rolling, or crushing can provide a marginal increase in the digestibility of nutrients.  How much it increases, is actually minimal.  Consider this: next time you are cleaning out stalls, take a look at a pile of your horse’s manure.  See any oats in there?  Those have made it through the digestive tract without providing nutrition to your horse.

As you can see, oats are highly variable and nutritionally unbalanced in many areas important to horses.  Feeding your horse oats without balancing the diet could easily result in nutritional deficiencies.   If you feel strongly about feeding oats to your horse, it’s worth considering a commercial grain made with oats.

Alternatively, certain supplements are made to compliment oats and fill the nutrient  gaps for your horse.  This way, you can feel good about feeding your horse oats, and your horse will feel good with balanced nutrition.

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Dehydration in Horses – A Year Round Concern

We sometimes think of dehydration as only a hot weather concern. Horses (and people) can experience dehydration any time they are losing more water from their body than they are taking in to maintain fluid balance. This can be a problem in warm humid conditions, but can also be a problem in warm dry conditions or cold dry conditions. This is a definite concern in cold weather when access to water may be restricted due to frozen water supplies.

Dr. Lon Lewis presented this very handy table on dehydration several years ago in his book Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and Care.

% Dehydration Possible Symptoms
Less than 5%
  • No detectable abnormalities are generally present.
6%
  • Skin becomes slightly inelastic with a pinch test time of longer than 1 second
8%
  • Capillary refill times goes from normal of 1.5-2 seconds to about 3 seconds
  • Mouth and mucous membranes may be dry
  • Generally the feces will be dry and urine output may decrease
10%
  • Severe skin elasticity
  • Capillary refill time will be over 3 seconds
  • Extremities will be cold and there may be weakness
12% and greater
  • Inability to stand
  • Shock
  • Muscle twitching
  • Weak pulse
  • Death can occur at or above this level

For an 1100 pound horse horse, 5% dehydration would mean the horse has lost about 55 pounds of water or about 6.875 gallons (1 gallon = 8 pounds of water).  At 12% dehydration, the 1100 pound horse has lost 132 pounds of fluid or about 16.5 gallons.

You may also see loss of performance and visual signs without doing these tests. I see this in the arena when I am judging, particularly during the hot humid conditions. I confess I have experienced some of the same symptoms when judging a long horse show while wearing a coat and tie! It takes me about 24 hours to rehydrate!

If you are not familiar with the pinch test or capillary refill time, it is a good idea to discuss these tests with your veterinarian as these are important quick tests to check the status of your horse as a part of general first aid along with being able to check pulse and heart rate. In general terms, the skin pinch test is best done over the shoulder or over the back. Capillary refill time can be checked by pressing on the gum to compress the blood vessels, then timing the return to normal color.

Dehydration may be due to many different factors and can contribute to impaction colic as well as heat stress or heat stroke. Dehydration may occur in cool or cold weather as well as hot weather. Horse owners should visit with their veterinarians to make certain they know how to recognize the various symptoms of dehydration.

Having fresh clean water available at all times and providing access to salt free choice (loose salt may be preferred during cold weather) all year long are required to help reduce the risk of dehydration.

Lewis, Lon D. DVM, PhD., Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and Care, Williams & Wilkins, 1995, Table 17-1, page 392.

Your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

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