By: Russell Mueller, M.S., P.A.S.
Progressive Nutrition's Equine Guide # 202
As horse owners, we all want the best nutrition for our horses. Supplying a nutritionally balanced diet helps achieve optimal growth, improved performance and saves money over time. Accomplishing this dietary balance require evaluating several factors including starting with the forage. The foundation of a balanced diet is forage. Horses are continuous grazing animals, consuming several small meals over an 18 hour period in a day. Therefore, offering as much hay or forage as possible, whether in a pasture, paddock or stall, will help maintain digestive tract function and overall well-being.
Customers always ask what is the best hay for their horses. When it comes to type of forage there is no RIGHT answer. If we are talking about pastures, the best type is whatever can be easily grown in your area that can be maintained by proper weed control, water amounts and fertilization. The best answer for cut hay, whether it is alfalfa or grass, is to make sure it is clean, free of mold and dust, and is harvested at the proper maturity. The more mature grass or alfalfa hays get, the less digestible the nutrients will be. In fact just a two week delay in harvest time with brome grass hays can decrease the protein level by almost 50%, lower the calorie content by 23% and increase the NDF fiber content by over 25%. All of which result in your hay not delivering the results that you need.
When forage maturity drops, the only way to offset the changes, beyond buying different hay, is to add more grain. Remember the purpose of a grain mix is to supply the nutrients to the horse that are not supplied by the forage. Therefore, if you have a good quality forage, your grain may be little to none. However as the quality of hay declines, the amount of grain needed to maintain body condition, muscle tone including top line, and maximum performance will increase dramatically.
Also keep in mind that while good hays may meet the horse’s calorie and protein needs, no hay or forage source can meet the horse’s entire need for vitamins and minerals. Typical grass hay contains 4-10 ppm Copper, with the optimal range of requirements for growth being 40-50 ppm. Furthermore, with long term storage, there is destruction of the fat soluble Vitamins such as A, D, & E, eventually resulting in little to no sources of these nutrients coming from the grass. This knowledge about the vitamin and mineral content of forages means that all horses need some type of vitamin/mineral source in addition to all forage types.
Benefits and Characteristics of Forage
Due to the volume of hay eaten in a day, forage plays a large factor on the diet’s nutritional balance. Knowing the forage type (grass or legume), nutrient content and overall quality (Relative Feed Value, RFV) will help to determine what additional nutrients are needed.
The more a horse chews, especially forage, the more saliva it produces. Salvia is a natural buffer and lubricant for the digestive tract of the horse. This can help offset stomach upset and certain types of colic.
Overly mature forages are very hard to digest. Selecting forages harvested at the early-bloom maturity stage will deliver maximum nutrient availability.
Because of the inherent nature of plants pulling minerals from the soil to grow, the overall mineral density (especially trace elements such as copper and zinc) are getting lower and lower in forages over time, emphasizing the importance of added minerals from feeds.