Many horse owners are experiencing extreme difficulty during the spring and summer of 2019 finding decent quality forage in most parts of the Midwest due to extremely wet spring weather. Although some Western states have plentiful hay supplies, it is difficult and expensive for horse owners in many parts of the Midwest to acquire shipments of good quality forage. Horse owners unfortunate enough to reside in areas of feed shortage should keep an open mind about “alternative feeds” that may be used to stretch forages.
Although horses require some source of fiber in the diet in order for the hind gut to function normally, research has found that horses tolerate various forms of processed forages very well. A study conducted at the University of Illinois (Andrew, JE, K.H. Kline and J.L. Smith. 2006. Effects of Feed Form on Growth and Blood Glucose in Weanling Horses. J. Equine Vet. Sci. 26: 349-355.) found that young horses consuming a completely pelleted diet of processed hay and grain grew at a slightly faster rate than when the same horses consumed the same feed ingredients as separate hay and grain feedings. These findings illustrate that horses do not require long-stemmed forage at all times, as long as the diet contains adequate fiber, even when highly processed into pellets. Therefore, horse owners should consider alternate forage sources such as hay cubes, dehydrated alfalfa pellets and completely pelleted feeds for their horses during times of hay shortages.
Many popular “junior” and “senior” feeds for growing and geriatric horses, respectively, are in a form called “completely pelleted.” This means that this type feed may be offered to the horse as the complete daily ration without additional hay, hay cubes or grain, due to the fact that it is already a comprehensive package of forage, grain products and vitamin/mineral supplements compressed into a pellet. Other completely pelleted horse feed products designed for horses of any life stage are commercially available, and they can be recognized by their feed tag nutrient profile that contains about 18% crude fiber and around 12% Crude Protein. One commercial completely pelleted feed formulated by Purina Mills has a higher crude fiber content of 26% and actually has “hay stretcher” in the name, in order to be clear about its potential use.
This feeding method is used less commonly than the typical management method whereby hay and grain are fed separately to horses, but may have potential to be used more often. These types of feeds have great potential to be used instead of long-stemmed forages fed along with separate grain meals, when forages are very scarce.
Another forage product that can be successfully used in horse diets is called “Chaffhaye.” This product is essentially ensiled alfalfa (or grass) in a bag with high moisture content, sprayed with a light coating of low sugar content molasses and some probiotics to start the fermentation process. Although the horse owner is paying for quite a bit of extra water in this type of package, the fact that the forage has been packaged before excessive dehydration yields a very nutritious product with no leaf loss.
Although forages may be scarce in many parts of the Midwest this summer, horse owners that are open-minded about feeding their horses in non-traditional ways can survive the potential hay shortages.