Hay Options in a Drought

SWHT – Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road
-by TJ Wierenga

(originally published in Southwest Horse Trader magazine, 2007)

The past two years have seen particularly high temperatures and low rainfall drought conditions through much of the southwestern United States, particularly Texas. As a result, quality coastal square bales have gone from $3 in the field to an average of $7 or more, and round bales from $35 to $90. This is provided that you can actually FIND the hay, which is another challenge. Being herbivores and grazers by nature, horses in the wild will graze for as much as 14 hours per day. Horses require a certain quantity of edible fiber per day, and the quality of that fiber plays a great part in the health of your horse as well. Colic, heaves, and ulcers can all result from poor quality hay.

There are alternatives to standard pasture grass hays, however. We’ll explore these below. Keep in mind that when feeding alternative hay products, you should take at least 2 weeks to slowly make radical changes to your horse’s diet. Consult your veterinarian for approval of your new diet prior to making changes. Take into mind your horse’s age and nutritional requirements, as well as the equine need to chew for long periods of time.

– Chopped Hay packaged in sealed, air-tight wrap. Easy to handle, free of dust and mold, consistent product and protein levels.
– Pack Cubes – similar to chopped hay but using alfalfa (generally) as a binding agent. Pay attention to protein content, as alfalfa varies considerably from pasture grasses such as coastal Bermuda.
– Alfalfa in Hay Form– use less due to protein and calcium % being much higher than grass hays. Lower quality alfalfa is a better choice for lower-activity adult horses; ie first cutting or a cutting of more mature alfalfa plants. Alfalfa is a legume, like clover. Horses will tend to drink more when fed alfalfa. It’s important to know where the hay came from and ensure that it is blister-beetle free.
– Dehydrated Alfalfa Cubes offer the benefits of far less waste, are free of dust, are easy to handle and store, and are less bulky than hay. They are also highly palatable to horses so care must be taken to avoid overfeeding, and they can be more expensive than hay.
– Dehydrated Alfalfa Pellets are even smaller than cubes, and nutritionally are more dense, so even less volume is required when using pellets. Due to their small size, they are quickly consumed and don’t provide the chewing satisfaction of larger cubes or regular alfalfa hay, so horses may tend to chew or crib on other items out of boredom.
– Oat Hay – nutritional values similar to grass hays
– Beet Pulp is the highly digestible fiber remaining after the sugar is extracted from sugar beets. It is relatively high in calcium (similar to alfalfa) but fairly low in crude protein content (similar to grass hay). Because it is usually soaked with water just prior to feeding, it is a great method to increase your horse’s water intake, particularly in winter when many horses tend to not drink enough. You should limit to 10 pounds dry weight or less per day, per horse. Beet pulp is a great feed for “hard keepers” because it is easy to chew and digest, and horses find it highly palatable. Generally found pressed, shredded or in pellets.
– Soy Hulls – high fiber but fairly digestible
– All-in-One/Complete Feeds such as Equine Senior, SafeChoice, etc. Central Texas Farrier Joe Salaman reports that one of his customers has been using Wendlandt’s All-in-One for about 8 weeks now on his (2) 25-year old horses, and they saw 2” of hoof growth in that period of time! Horses previously were wearing shoes just to keep them sound, they’re now barefoot and much healthier hoof-wise. These feeds are bagged so there is little mess and waste; price may be a consideration. Complete feeds should contain at least 15% fiber if no hay is fed.

Other options for feeding hay in a drought include splitting loads with neighbors and/or friends. It is possible to find out-of-state grass hay coming in on 18-wheelers being advertised online or through publications such as SouthWest Horse Trader, and while hauled hay may tend to be somewhat expensive, they are generally very high quality hay. A case of “you get what you pay for”! You may also try limiting feeding of higher quality hay; for example square bales fed out more slowly versus unlimited round bale access on a daily basis. Or limit the number of hours your horses have access to a round bale, such as 12 hours daily instead of all 24.

Research recommends feeding grain AFTER feeding horses hay, as the hay then buffers the horse’s stomach, as well as encourages them to chew more as they are not so hungry by the time they eat their grain.

Horse owners should feed 1.5 – 2% of their horse’s body weight minimum of total feeds per day. For an average, 1000 pound, mature, non-high performance horse, that is 15 – 20 pounds of feed, including grain. The majority of this feed should be hay or other forage/high fiber alternatives. Remember to measure by WEIGHT, not VOLUME. Fine, loose hay does not have the same nutrient value and roughage content as tighter-packed bales! Simple, inexpensive scales can be purchased and placed in your feed room for quick estimates of the weight of feed you are providing your horse.

There are other types of hay available, typically indicated as “cow hay”. Kleingrass is a cattle grazer type grass hay and is known to cause extreme photosensitivity in horses. Johnsongrass is a type of sudan and may cause neurological problems in horses due to high nitrate levels. Nitrate levels increase in drought conditions, and when ingested by horses (although symptoms may not be indicated until horses have fed off these types of grasses for several days), the nitrates convert into nitrites more quickly than the horses’ bodies can adjust. This nitrite poisoning hinders the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, resulting in rapid breathing, fast and weak heartbeat, muscle tremors, urine dribbling, staggering, abortion of fetuses in pregnant mares, and even death. This type of poisoning does not have an effective treatment and horses rarely recover.

Consult your equine veterinary practitioner regarding any drastic changes in your horse’s diet, as they will be able to help you put together a balanced diet that will safely address your horse’s nutritional requirements.


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