Hay Shortage Has Horse Owners Looking at Alternatives

Severe drought leaves hayfields and pastures brown and dry, and animal owners searching for replacement options.

Following the most extensive drought in 25 years, horse owners are facing hay shortages, increased prices and pastures in poor condition.1 We asked an equine nutrition expert about alternatives to feeding hay and what horse owners can do to help fill the gap left by these unusual and difficult conditions.

To get a complete picture of why hay is important to horses’ diets, Jolene Wright, Consumer Service Specialist, Nutrena, responded to some commonly asked questions.

Q. What does hay in a horse’s diet provide?

A. Hays and forages make up the majority of a horse’s diet and provide necessary complex carbohydrates they need, as well as protein and vitamins and minerals. Complex carbohydrates include hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin. These complex carbohydrates form in the cell wall in plants and provide fiber in the horse’s diet.

Q. How much hay does a horse need?

A. Horses require one to two percent of their body weight in forage daily, depending on their activity level and life stage. For a 1,000-pound horse, that would translate to 10 to 20 pounds of hay per day. Growing, breeding and working horses need additional supplementation to meet daily nutrient requirements.

Q. Is any hay okay, or are there things a horse owner should look for when choosing hay?

A. Horse owners should always seek out good quality hay. If it is coarse and stemmy, it’s a sign that the hay was baled when it was too mature and has high levels of lignin, which is not readily digested and has no nutritional value. This can increase the risk of gastric disturbances and distension of the digestive tract.

Q. Why has the drought impacted the hay crop?

A. When there is insufficient rain, the plant doesn’t get enough growth to cut at the proper stage for optimum nutrient levels. Cutting and baling hay at the proper nutrient stage varies from one type of forage plant to another and is also dependent on the climate and weather.

Q. What are some alternatives if I can’t find good hay that’s affordable in my area?

A. First, because hay provides long-stem forage which is ideal for the  horse’s digestive system, it is better to stretch the existing hay source instead of feeding all the hay first and then switching to a hay replacement product. There are many products available that can provide the fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals a horse needs every day. Other forage options include hay cubes, hay pellets, compressed hay, chopped hay in bags and complete feeds with high levels of fiber that can be fed as a sole ration.

Q. Is there anything I need to do when adding one of these replacement type feeds to my horse’s diet?

A. It’s best to consult with your veterinarian to ensure a seamless transition. Then, make the changes gradually over seven to 10 days, following recommended feeding rates for the horse’s individual weight and activity level.

Q. In warmer climates where the grass doesn’t go dormant, can that make up for a lesser amount of hay?

A. Winter pasture can provide a level of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. The quantity and quality of winter pasture will determine the amount of additional hay or hay replacement type product that a horse will need. Too many horses on a small amount of pasture will reduce the amount available to the horse and can deplete nutrient yield. Horse owners can get the suggested minimum number of acres per horse from the local agriculture extension agent for their specific area. For horses on winter pasture, it’s important for the horse owner to assess the body condition score of the horses and monitor their body condition through winter months. This will help determine if they are getting enough dry matter intake from winter pasture.

 

Jolene Wright has a master’s degree in Animal Science from West Texas A & M University, a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business and Equine Industries from West Texas A & M, and two associate degrees in Equestrian Science and horse Science Technology from Black Hawk College. Wright is a two-time American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Champion and was a member of the West Texas A & M and Black Hawk College AQHA World Championship Horse Judging Team, West Texas A & M National Reining Horse Association Championship Horse Judging Team and West Texas A & M National Champion Equestrian Team.

©2013 Merial Limited, Duluth, GA. All rights reserved. EQUILGN1232

1United States Department of Agriculture. U.S. Drought 2012: Farm and Food Impacts. Available at: http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/in-the-news/us-drought-2012-farm-and-food-impacts.aspx. Accessed November 20, 2012.

When Should I Feed a Complete Horse Feed?

A complete feed is a fortified grain/forage mix that is formulated with high quality fiber sources to raise the total percent fiber in the feed, so that reduced hay feeding can be done safely. Some fiber sources in complete feeds include alfalfa, beet pulp, and soy hulls. These are all good digestible fiber ingredients for horses.

Here are some of the many reasons why you might decide to feed a complete feed.  

  • You have a horse with poor teeth or no teeth that can no longer chew and swallow hay. This can be a young or old horse.
  • Good quality hay is hard to find, obtain, or pay for. This situation will most likely occur in:
    • Drought situations when plants aren’t growing or they are very mature when they get tall enough to cut. When a plant gets too mature it has high levels of lignin that can’t be digested by the horse leading to digestive upsets or increased risk of colic. Plants also lose nutrient content the more mature they get.
    • Extremely wet conditions because it may be more mature by the time a farmer gets good weather to cut it and flooding can also bring debris onto fields that can be harmful to your horse.
    • Situatinos where hay gets more expensive as fertilizer and fuel costs rise.
  • There is a lot of hay wasted from handling, transporting, ect. More hay is wasted when horses are fed round bales. When hay is expensive and there is a lot of waste, complete feeds may be more cost effective.
  • Hay is hard to handle and round bales/large square bales require a tractor for handling and other equipment such as a flatbed trailer. Equipment requires fuel, tires, maintenance, ect. The cost of handling hay should be brought into consideration when cost is a major factor in feeding.

Long stem forage is an important part of the horses diet and a good source of forage should comprise of at least 50% of the horses daily intake when possible. However, when any of the above conditions exist it may be necessary to feed a complete feed only or reduce the amount of hay being fed. A horse that can no longer chew hay will need to get all of his daily requirements from a complete feed that is easy to eat such as a senior complete feed with softer pellets that can also be fed as a wet mash. If hay shortage, hay cost, or drought is the reason you feed a complete feed you may want to continue feeding some hay in the diet for long stem forage if possible.

It is important to read and follow the feeding recommendations when buying a complete feed, and they should list the recommended feeding amount both with and without hay on the tag. As you decrease the amount of hay, you will need to increase the amount of complete feed. Here are two examples of complete feeds and how much to feed a 1,000 lb maintenance type horse with no hay and with hay/pasture.

  • A senior horse feed – generally a highly digestible and highly palatable product that can be fed as a complete feed, and is designed for older horses. 
    • A 1,000 lb maintenance type horse would receive 12 – 14 lbs of a senior feed, if no additional hay is fed.
    • The same horse, if it was being fed hay, would receive 5 – 7.5 lbs of the senior feed.
  • A traditional complete horse feed – known as “hay replacers” or “hay stretchers” – are a complete feed that combines high quality roughage and grains in a pelleted form. It can be fed as a complete feed or with forage. 
    • If no hay is fed, a maintenance type horse would receive 1.5 lbs per 100 lb body weight. A 1,000 lb horse is recommended to get 1,000/100 = 10 x 1.5 lbs = 15 lbs of a complete feed.
      When feeding along with hay or pasture, a typical recommended amount to feed a maintenance type horse 0.5 lb per 100 lb body weight or 5 lbs.

Whether you chose to feed a complete feed with hay or without, it is important to feed the recommended amount and make adjustments as needed depending on if your horse is an easy or hard keeper. It is also important to provide free choice salt and clean, fresh water at all times. Complete feeds should be split into two or more feedings. Horses should be switched slowly from one feed to another and also when eliminating hay from the diet. When reducing the amount of hay fed, it is recommended to reduce hay over 1-2 weeks.