Forage is a staple in every horse’s diet and the best sources are natural grasses and hay. You can turn to several alternatives if natural forage is in short supply, but it’s important to be aware of their pros and cons.
Horses need a fairly continuous source of forage for their sustenance. Optimal forage sources are natural hay and grasses, but if these are scarce, you can consider a variety of potential alternatives and additions to your horse’s diet. However, it’s important to know the advantages and disadvantages of each before making a decision.
How much forage does he need?
It was traditionally understood that at least 50% of a horse’s diet should be forage, but that recommendation is moving up to over 80%.1 In other words, most of your horse’s feed should be forage; in fact, current research is showing the benefits of feeding a complete forage diet, even to equine athletes.1 It’s estimated that horses will typically consume 1.7% to 2.6% of their body weight in dry matter when given ad libitum forage2 (that’s 17 lbs to 26 lbs of hay per day for a 1,000 lb horse). Current recommendations are that horses should consume at least 1.5% to 2% of their body weight in forage or forage substitutes, such as hay cubes or other high-fiber source daily1 (that’s a minimum of 15 to 20 lbs of grass or hay per day).
Natural grasses and legumes can fulfill these nutritional requirements for horses. Hay is the common alternative when natural forage is unavailable. Unfortunately, good quality hay is not always easy to find, which means forage substitutes may be required.
The most difficult challenge with a forage substitute is to ensure adequate fiber and roughage. Fiber is needed to maintain a healthy digestive system. It provides energy, fills the gut and soaks up water in the gut. The absence of fiber leads to many major problems, including boredom, colic, dehydration, diarrhea, energy deficiency and hunger.
Here are eight possible additions and/or alternatives to hay:
1. Hay cubes
Hay is forage that is cut, sun-cured and baled. For hay cubes, the forage can be either sun-cured or dehydrated. Typically timothy, alfalfa or a combination of both, the forage is cut at an early stage of maturity and only partially dried in the field before being shipped to the processing plant and dehydrated. Then, instead of being baled, it is coarsely chopped, mixed with a binder, compressed and set into a form. Different manufacturers use different supplements and binders which are listed on the label. Types and amounts of protein, minerals, molasses and oils all vary between brands, as does the caloric content. Check for the mixture that best matches your feeding needs.
There are advantages to feeding hay cubes over hay.3 The cubes have a lower moisture content, less mold and spores, and stay better longer, retaining their nutritional profile. They are easier to store and can generate less waste than hay. The nutritional profile is more uniform and the values are displayed on each bag. They can also be easier for older horses to chew, and may be more digestible. Soaking the cubes for easier chewing or for highly sensitive animals is also simpler than soaking hay, and may result in less dust and mold. For horses on special regulated feeding programs, it’s easier to monitor how much has been consumed with pellets or cubes than it is with hay. Also, hard keepers may be more likely to consume more feed overall with cubes (up to 25% more over hay5), and better maintain their weight.
On the downside, cubes are more expensive than hay because of processing costs, and horses finish them faster so spend less time chewing. It’s suggested that an appropriate type of hay is fed along with the cubes to prolong the feeding. Also, you can’t see the purity of the feed in cubes because everything is ground together and looks the same. While some horses don’t like the texture of cubes, others may wolf them down, which means those predisposed to choke or digestive problems should have their food soaked. Because cubes are in a compact form, you need to guard against overconsumption.
In several research studies at Rutgers, Ralston reports good results from using hay cubes as the sole source of fiber.4 Although the studies found an increased incidence of wood chewing in every study, Russell and Johnson5 reported that cubes made from coarsely chopped hay appeared to eliminate wood chewing.
Care needs to be taken when switching over from hay to a cubed feed. As with any change of feeding regime, do it slowly over time. In general, the cubed feed can be fed in the same amounts as hay, based on weight. Start by gradually adding the new feed in, and eventually feed up to 75% to 80% cubes over hay by weight.6
2. Hay pellets
Pellets go through the same manufacturing process as cubes, but they also go through a more intense grinding process. Again, different manufacturers use different mixes, binders and supplements as detailed on the labels. However, because of the smaller size of pellets, they have not been found to maintain a healthy digestive system. Pellets have also been linked to behavioral issues such as wood chewing and tail biting4 as well as increased searching and non-restful behavior. Pellets are not recommended as a forage substitute.7
3. Beet pulp
Beet pulp is a very digestible source of fiber. It is considered a forage substitute because of its high fiber content. It is a popular supplement with a low sugar content, high calcium and moderate protein levels (8%). In general, one pound of beet pulp is fed for every one-and-a-half pounds of hay it replaces.
When used as a hay substitute, beet pulp shouldn’t make up more than 40% of the total forage. That’s because it doesn’t provide the long-stemmed forage component required for gut health. It’s recommended that the traditional form be soaked, but not for the pelleted form. Up to ten pounds (dry weight) of beet pulp can be fed to an average mature horse, but he will also need a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement as beet pulp doesn’t contain vitamins. Also keep in mind that most beets are now genetically modified.
When creating haylage, forages are harvested at moisture levels of between 45% to 70%, then stored in a container such as a plastic bag. The exclusion of air and the resulting low pH is required for preserving high-moisture forage. However, the risk of spoilage and toxic development during fermentation is very high. Horses that are going to be fed haylage should be vaccinated against botulism.4 Many people have used haylage to feed their horses, but it isn’t known how many fatalities there have been. Research is also lacking about the effects of feeding a highly acidic feed to horses, although a more basic (alkaline) diet has been shown to be beneficial.
When haylage is exposed to air for feeding, it needs to be quickly consumed and should be monitored to ensure there is no mold or spore development.5 Moving bales must be done carefully, as any tears or holes in the bag will cause a secondary fermentation and spoilage. Haylage should be used very cautiously if it is needed as a forage replacement. Also, because of its high moisture content, more haylage needs to be fed on a per weight basis as compared to hay.
Although wheat bran is often fed as a fiber supplement, it is not beneficial to horses, especially in large quantities over long periods of time. Bran has an inverted calcium to phosphorous ratio that can cause imbalances, as well as debilitating problems from the high phosphorous content. Rice bran has also been promoted as a source of fiber and energy (fat) for horses. However, rice bran has an even higher concentration of phosphorous than wheat bran. Neither rice nor wheat bran are recommended as a forage substitute.4
6. Complete feeds
Concentrates are sold as “complete feed” and some are labeled as a complete forage substitute. They can contain a mixture of hays, grains, beet pulp and vitamin and mineral supplements, and are developed around various standard nutritional profiles (i.e. growth, maintenance, performance, for broodmares). However, complete feeds don’t have the required fiber to maintain a horse’s health. It’s better to use them as a supplement to forage, not as a replacement.
7. Straw and chaff
Straw comes from the stalks remaining after a grain crop is harvested. It contains very little nutritional value but can be a good source of fiber. Straw may satiate a horse’s desire to chew when he is restricted from adequate sources of long-stemmed forage or sufficient fiber. Straw is not a source of nutrition.
Chopped hay and straw is known as chaff. Chaff can provide the indigestible fiber essential in maintaining digestive tract health. It may also be used as something the horse can chew for an extended period of time. The quality of chaff can often be a concern, so it is important to check that it’s not contaminated with any molds or other substances that could be toxic to horses. It is also lacking nutrients so is not recommended as a replacement for forage.
Grass or good quality hay is vital to the health of your horse. Pelleted feed, beet pulp and complete feeds can be great nutritional products, but don’t use them to replace the long-stemmed fiber required for your horse’s intestinal health.
The only real forage substitute for hay is hay cubes. The best hay cubes for supplementation are those with long-stem fibers of at least 1” in length. Other feeds do not have enough fiber to meet your horse’s requirements.
The increased consumption of dense higher-energy substitutes over forage is not usually beneficial. Even racehorses fed 100% forage maintain their condition and may have better health than those fed high levels of concentrates. Knowing the nutritional profile of your grass and hay will help in balancing your horse’s diet and ensure he is getting his full nutritional requirements!
1Ralston, S. Nutritional Requirements of Horses. Merck Veterinary Manual, www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-horses/nutritional-requirements-of-horses, 2017.
2Ringmark, Revold, Jansson. Effects of training distance on feed intake, growth, body condition and muscle glycogen content in young Standardbred horses fed a forage-only diet. Animal. 2017 Oct;11(10):1718-1726.
3Kentucky Equine Research, Inc, “Nutrition and Convenience in Cube Form”, Equinews, vol.9:2, www.equinews.com/article/nutrition-and-convenience-in-cube-form .
4Ralston, SL, Wright, B., Forage Substitutes For Horses, Government of Ontario, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, 2008, www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/horses/facts/05-055.htm .
5Russell, Mark A. Department of Animal Sciences and Johnson, Keith D., Department of Agronomy, Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue University, Selecting Quality Hay for Horses,
6Johnson, Debra. “Feeding horses hay cubes”, www.horsehints.org/HayCubes.htm .
7Elia, JB, Erb HN, Houpt, K. “Motivation for hay: effects of a pelleted diet on behavior and physiology of horses”, Physiol Behav. 2010 Dec 2;101(5):623-7.