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Forage as the Foundation

The overall health of our horses and  proper gastrointestinal function is reliant on  using forages (hay or pasture) as the  foundation of your feeding program.   A horse has no requirement for cereal grain (oats,  corn, barley) in his diet, but cannot exist  without forage. One of the most common  mistakes that people make in feeding horses  is not providing enough good quality forage.  We as horse owners have forgotten, or never learned, that horses are forage eating animals  who when left to their own  accord will “graze” about 18  hours out of every 24 hour  day.   Horses have a  very small stomach that  requires them to eat many  small meals all day long to  function at its best.   These meals are not meant to be  grain, but forage. A horse  will graze a little, rest a little,  graze a little and so on.  When we confine a horse to  a stall or dry lot, we really  need to mimic mother nature  as best we can, and let them  “graze” and eat those small  meals all day long.   In addition,  the horse has a very  long and coiling intestinal  system that when empty is much more prone  to twists and torsions. Keeping forage moving  through the gut all day long can also help  reduce these types of colic, similar to when  we have water in a garden hose”¦ it becomes  more difficult to twist or kink that hose.   To  accomplish our goal of keeping the GI tract full,  we can either feed them every 2-4 hours or  give them enough hay so that when you go to  feed them again, they haven’t quite cleaned up  what you had given them previously. This  means that they were able to “graze” all day or  night just as their system is meant to. This  practice can reduce many common vices like  wood chewing, pawing and cribbing. In addition,  horses are happier, healthier and more  willing to work for you.

An average mature horse in light  riding requires about 2% of it’s body weight per  day in feed.   For a 1000 lb horse that would  equate to 20 lbs of some-thing per day. If you  are feeding 5 pounds of grain, a bare minimum of 15 pounds of  hay  should be supplied. If you feed less grain,  more hay would be required. An average flake  of grass weighs about 3 pounds, while an  average flake of alfalfa weighs about 4  pounds. This means that somewhere around 4  to 5 flakes of hay per 1000 lbs should be fed  per day as a bare minimum. If the horse is in  heavier training, growing, reproducing or  lactating the percentages of feed required for  body weight will increase thereby increasing  the amount of hay or forage needed.

Building on the Foundation  Hopefully the importance of forage  is now understood and we can build upon  that. Before you select your grain or diet  balancer you need to think about what kind  and quality of hay you are feeding. Again, use  the forage as the foundation and evaluate  through analysis or average comparison, your  forages’ attributes as far as  protein, calories and major and  trace mineral levels.   Many horses can meet or exceed protein,  calorie and even some  major mineral requirements  through good quality forage fed  in adequate amounts.   If you are  in this situation, you may not  need to feed any cereal grain  (corn, oat, etc) and only need to  use a diet balancer to meet the  trace mineral, fat and amino  acid needs that the forage may  not be providing. If we use  forage as the foundation, the  only reason we would even feed  grain to our horses is to make  up for the difference in what our  horse needs and what the  forage is providing. We know  forages tend to fall short in the trace mineral  and amino acid categories so we would want  to add these things back, but we may only  need to add additional grain if the forage falls  short in the calorie department. Your horses’  body condition will tell you this.

The Economics of Forage  Most importantly to some are the  economics. Generally speaking, forage in the  form of hay or pasture is much less expensive  than grain. Even if you pay $5 to $7/bale for hay, where can you find a decent bag of grain for that price?   So, by feeding good quality hay and  plenty of it, you may be able to decrease your  feed bill by only having to feed a concentrated  amount of a diet balancer type product. Pound  for pound, hay is usually your cheapest feed  source and really is what horses are meant to  eat!

By: Kelly Ann Graber B.S., P.A.S. Equine  Nutrition Consultant for Progressive Nutrition, email:   lkgraber@win-4-u.net    Progressive Nutrition email: customerservice@prognutrition.com  

[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 2, Issue 2.]

 

Have you been able to find good quality, affordable forage? Do you buy hay or bale your own? Tell us about the hay crop in your community!

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