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Hay Crisis

It’s been a great summer for ducks and umbrella sales, but not so good for making hay. This year’s hay will be scarce, coarse, less leafy, and not as nutritious. The quality will be poor, but it will be more expensive. As a result, there will be a tendency for all of us to look for other sources of feed for our animals.

he Portland area equine veterinarians that share emergency duty got together the other day. Dr Rachel Flaherty of Maine Equine Associates gave a presentation on hay replacement options for horses. It was so well researched and timely that I am presenting some of its main points here.

There are a number of things that you can use to supplement hay with, but it is wise to avoid them as complete substitutes. Good times or bad, day in and day out, most of the horse’s diet should always be roughage. Down south that might mean pasture 24/7. In Maine it means pasture for one short season and roughage (hay) the rest of the year. Roughage has at least 18% fiber. Our GI tracts could never handle it, but the design of the horse’s gut makes high fiber the perfect feed for them. It provides most of the digestible energy, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that horses need. It should be fed out at 1.5 to 2.0% of their body weight per day. This means that a 1000 pound horse will go through about ¾ of an average bale of hay a day. If you feed less, you can anticipate some health problems.

Issues always arise when people look for complete substitutes for hay. For example, particle size in feed is important. It should be at least one inch in length. Shorter particles may lead to colic and a tendency to chew on wood. Bagged “complete feeds” have that problem. They are eaten quickly and if horses aren’t spending time chewing, they tend to get bored and pick up unwanted behaviors. The complete feeds used as a total hay substitute increase the risk of colic and laminitis. They should be used only as a partial supplement in a poor hay year, not as a total substitute.
Hay stretcher pellets are not the correct particle size, and like complete feeds should be considered only as a supplement and not be depended on for total roughage needs. These are mostly alfalfa meal with some peanut shells.

Hay cubes are often an alfalfa/timothy mix and are a good source of fiber. Their particle size is adequate, but they are richer than native hay, and so should probably be avoided as a complete substitute. There is a risk of choke as the cubes are quite dry. Soaking for 10 minutes before feeding is recommended.

Chopped hay is put through large commercial dryers after mowing and is packaged in air tight bags. It is pretty much dust and mold free. The particle size is generally over an inch so it makes an excellent supplement or substitute for native hay. The down side is the extra expense. Lucerne Farms of Aroostook County is the prime manufacturer in Maine and a good source.

Beet pulp is a good source of very digestible fiber, but has some vitamin deficiencies, and is extremely dry. Most of the cases of choke that we see in horses in our area are from feeding beet pulp that has not been well soaked for several hours before feeding. Like beet pulp, rice bran is often used to put weight on, and is a good source of fat and fiber, but shouldn’t be a major substitute for roughage. Wheat bran is another good source of fiber, but because of a mineral imbalance its use should be limited.

Straw has great fiber, of course, but is limited in nutrition value.

Lawn clippings are often thrown over the fence, and in limited quantities would be OK with some warnings. The moisture content is high, so if left in a pile, the grass will rapidly mold. Generally people mow their lawns once a week. A big once a week meal of grass clippings has the potential of causing colic as the bacteria in the gut can die off with the unaccustomed feed, stopping the digestive process for awhile.

Concentrates (bagged horse grains) are high in readily attainable energy and low in fiber relative to the volume. It would be a big mistake to feed more grain just because hay is scarce. Grain should always be considered as a supplement, and never the mainstay of a horse’s diet. There is plenty of evidence to show increased ulcer risk, potential metabolic syndromes, overweight issues, and all kinds of behavior problems from feeding too much grain.

To summarize: While expensive this year, hay is still the best feed. Chopped hay is a possible substitute. Hay cubes, hay stretcher pellets, beet pulp and rice bran are supplements but not good substitutes for hay. Grain should be considered as a supplement and never a substitute for roughage.


David A. Jefferson, DVM

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