Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

HELLO WEEKEND: Hay is for horses – that much I do know!

With so many forage choices out there, how does one choose the best option?

horse forage

Firstly, forage selection should be based on your horse needs as there is no one forage that is best suited for all classes of horses.  As an example, providing a nutrient dense forage like alfalfa to an “easy keeper” will create obesity issues, however that same hay would be the perfect option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements. 

The nutritive quality of forages, whether it be hay or pasture, is based on two factors:  Plant maturity and species.

Regardless of plant species, the stages of maturity does affect forage quality!

  • Young forages are very nutrient dense and contain fewer fibrous carbohydrates.
  • As the plant matures, the proportion of fiber in the plant increases (to provide structural support as the plant gets larger).  Because of this, the digestibility of the forage is reduce.
  • Mature forages also have lower energy and protein levels than their immature counterparts.

Most horses do well on mid-maturity forages.  Horses that need higher nutrient requirenets would benefit from receiving young, less mature forages, while the more mature forages are best suited for the “easy keeper.”

So what about the plant species?

Legumes vs. Grasses:  Legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, generally produce a higher quality forage than grasses.  Often, they have a higher energy, protein and mineral content when compared to grasses at a similar stage of maturity and are more digestible and more palatable.  Legumes are an excellent source of nutrients for your horse, however, as a word of caution, your horse’s nutrient requirement can easily be exceed when fed immature legumes and can result in obesity or other digestive issues.  Legume-grass mixes or mid to late maturity legumes provide adequate nutrients without exceeding your horse’s requirements.

Cool Season vs Warm Season Grasses:  Cool season grasses, such as bromegrass, bluegrass and orchargrass, typically have a higher nutritive value when compared to warm season grasses such as bermudagrass and bluestems.  Comparing these grasses at the same stage of maturity, the cool season grasses have a higher proten level and lower fiber content while the warm season grasses have a higher fiber content.  Late maturity warm season grasses are less digestible and may be less palatable than cool season.

Also, the cool season grasses store the majority of their carbohydrates as fructans, while the warm season grasses store their carbs as starch.  This is especially important if your horse is laminitis prone as rapid consumption of forages containing high levels of fructans, may trigger an event.  So, if you are struggling with laminitis issues, equine metabolic syndrome or PSSM, carbohydrate content of forage is a very important consideration!

The horse’s digestive system has been designed to efficiently utilize forages.  As a horse owner, it is your goal to match the nutrient levels in the forage to the nutrient requirements of your horse.  When making this decision, consider maturity and plant species as well.


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