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: email@example.com Progressive Nutrition email: firstname.lastname@example.org
[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 2, Issue 2.]
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