Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

Does My Horse Need a Diet or Exercise Change?

I recently taught an Equine Nutrition class to a group of seniors at an area college.  Our focus for the classroom lecture was dietary assessment by body condition scoring, weight and topline evaluation.   After the lecture I conducted a lab to apply hands on practice of what we had just reviewed.

One of the students asked if we could evaluate her horse during the lab session. The evaluation proved to be a classroom classic. The horse was a 4 year old Warmblood gelding. He was 17.1 hands and 1350 pounds. The horse at first glance appeared to be round and in good flesh, but as I ran my hands over his withers and back you could feel a lack of muscle and coverage.hand feeding red size

I asked the student what the horse’s current diet consisted of, she replied 20 pounds of first cutting hay per day and 8 pounds of locally grown oats. The calorie content of the diet appeared to be sufficient, however the amino acid balance was lacking. The student also mentioned she had her saddle recently refitted and the chiropractor out because the horse was having back issues.

With the move to college, the horse’s workload had increased and the need for additional fortification was obvious. I suggested that the student purchase a ration balancer to balance the needs of the young horse’s diet and help replenish his topline.

One of the students in the lab then challenged my recommendation.  She stated that she was an Equine Physiology major and felt my diagnosis was incorrect. She felt that by working the horse in a more collected manner, engaging his hind quarters and coming up under him would help to strengthen and develop his topline. She thought he looked fat and did not need to change his diet.

I went on to explain that the horse’s current diet was similar to a young child that would be on a straight rice diet, which is deficient in amino acids. You would see a round abdomen, but lack of muscle mass. If that child were getting ready to compete in a marathon, I doubt running extra laps would increase muscle mass, unless we supplemented the diet properly.

Again, your horse will tell you what is lacking in his diet, if you just take the time to look.

Unbalancing a Balanced Horse Feed Diet

I was helping a colleague do a horse nutrition training seminar the other day and the question came up “Is it okay to supplement a commercial feed?” Specifically, this person was feeding half oats and half SafeChoice to her horse. My colleague had a great answer for this. He picked up a half full glass of Coke – “Pretend this is SafeChoice. Balanced perfectly to provide just the right things in the right amounts.” Then he picked up a pitcher of water – “Now pretend this is the oats. Not nutritionally balanced, low in protein and high in starch.” He started pouring the water into the glass until the mixture reached the top. The result was a watered down, light brown mess that looked unappealing and I am sure tasted the same way. The message here is simple – commercial feeds are formulated to be complete in their vitamin/mineral content, protein level, energy and fat levels. When fed at the recommended amounts per day based on work level you are meeting your horses’ nutritional requirements and delivering a specific and targeted amount of nutrients. There is no need to add/substitute/mix anything else. If you take that same feed and mix it (with things like straight grains, sweet cob, etc) – the result is an unbalanced feed that does not meet the needs of the horse. The protein gets lowered, the vitamin and mineral contents become diluted and things like calcium and phosphorous and copper and zinc can get out of balance. What you get is a diluted mess that is only doing half the job. To get the full benefit of a commercial balanced feed, use it according to tag directions and resist the urge to dilute it with anything else!

Protein in Horse Feed & Hay

Newly born, Ella takes in her worldHorses of all ages require adequate amounts of protein for maintenance, growth, reproduction and work, with growth and reproduction being the most critical time periods.  Proteins are important building blocks for body cells.  Feed intake, growth, physical activity, physical endurance, condition, production of milk and fetal development can all be impaired if protein intake is inadequate.

Most every horse owner can name the protein level of the feed they are currently using.  “A 12% sweet feed” is a common answer when asked that question – but how important is that protein percentage?  While the total protein in the horses’ diet is important, horses actually require essential amino acids, even though crude protein is what is required by law to be listed in a guaranteed analysis.  Many feed manufacturers are moving towards listing the amino acids on the tag, which can help horse owners to see the quality of the protein sources being used.

Beyond the grain portion of the diet, a major factor to watch for regarding protein in an equine diet is the hay source.  After all, hay makes up the majority of the diet, and thus a lot of the protein in the diet comes from the hay. Horse owners need to figure in what their hay sources are providing, and balance it together with their grain source, to determine what their horses are consuming.

Listed below are protein percentages required by the major categories of horses – please note that these are for the TOTAL DIET, not just the grain portion.

  • Foals: 16-18%
  • Weanlings: 14-16%
  • Yearlings: 12-14%
  • Mature horses: 10-12%
  • Lactating mares: 12-14%

In order to figure out the total protein in your horses’ diet, follow this simple calculation:

( (Lbs Hay x Protein in Hay) + (Lbs Grain x Protein in Grain) ) / Total Lbs Fed = Protein in Total Diet

To have an accurate estimate of protein in your hay, it is best to have it tested.  Check with your local extension office or feed store for labs in your area that will do the testing.  Hay protein can vary dramatically from one cutting to the next, and from one field to the next.  Rainfall, stage of growth when harvested, and a variety of other factors can also influence the quality of the hay.  Alfalfa hays are typically considered to be higher protein that timothy or other grass hays, however if alfalfa is harvested late, perhaps due to weather concerns that make it tough to get in the field, it can have lower proteins than some grass hays that are harvested at the proper time.  Thus, it is always a good idea to know the facts behind your hay source rather than “guesstimating”.

A final point that must be made about protein:  Increased protein levels are not generally responsible for a “hot” horse.  Protein is a very inefficient source of energy, and its main use in a mature horse is the re-building of muscle and other body cells after exercise.  Instead, it is the starch and sugars in a horses diet, as well as the calorie intake to calories used (exercise level) ratio, that are primarily responsible for a “hot” horse.  But that’s a topic for another blog post!