Thursday, October 30, 2008

High Quality Horse Forage - Not Straw

Many of us subscribe to newsletters from  
I just received the first edition of their Nutrition e-newsletter, which links to an article called Nutritional Value of Forages . This hit one of my hot-buttons - perpetuating the myth that what we need for our horses is poor quality hay

The article quotes Jerry Chatterton, PhD, Research Leader of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah:
“Sometimes a little straw filler might be okay,” he said with a smile. In other words, lower-quality forage will keep your horse busy longer, is less likely to make him overweight and/or laminitic, and he’ll eat more of it to get energy--keeping his stomach full and at lower risk of ulcers.

What our horses do need is the best quality horse hay and forage we can afford - not lower quality. Everyone, from growers to veterinarians to horse owners needs to review their definition of high quality forage for horses - which is different than the definition for high quality meat or milk production animal forage. This difference does not make it any lower quality - just different.

Low quality forage (including "straw", which can be extremely high in sugar) or insufficient quantities of forage can cause nutritionally-based problems. By the time you see the signs on the outside - dull coat, lackluster attitude, poor hoof quality - the changes have already occurred on the inside.

High quality horse forage

  • Should provide adequate but not excessive DE (digestible energy/calories expressed in Mcal per pound) and protein levels (by grams consumed, not “percent”) suitable for the horse’s age, reproductive status and level of work
    • The DE needs to be low enough that the horse can consume sufficient forage to ensure good gut function without taking in too many calories.
  • Should provide major minerals at least at the levels known to be required by horses (or have levels that are easily corrected)
  • Should smell good, be free of dust, mold or toxins and be palatable to the horse
    • Hays from species that are known nitrate accumulators or were grown in stressful conditions should be tested for safe nitrate levels
    • Horses may need time to adjust to the taste/smell of a new variety of forage
  • Should be tested for “safe” sugar/starch levels for horses who might be prone to IR (insulin resistance) or laminitis
    • Not all “fat” horses are IR; not all IR horses are fat
    • IR is not a “disease” – it is a metabolic evolution that allowed horses to develop and thrive in harsh conditions
Most of us are learning by now that the only way to accurately determine if a hay or forage is appropriate for our horse is to have it tested (see Analyzing Hay and Feeds) and using the results to determine if corrections are needed. While sugar and starch in forage, as emphasized in the article, are important for metabolically challenged horses, there is a lot more you need to know about the nutritional value of the forage you give your horse. What works for your pasture ornament may be inadequate in many ways for your performance horse, and what works for your performance horse when he is training/working might set him up for laminitis when he's idle. 

Forage testing (even if only done as "spot checks" for an idea of what you're feeding if you can't store large quantities of hay) is cheap insurance - at $30 to $50, a lot less than a vet bill. "Correcting" excesses and deficiencies by targeted mineral balancing can be done economically - often for a lot less than buying an "off the shelf" standard supplement which may or may not provide what's needed (and often adds a lot of "stuff" that's not needed).

So - when looking at forage for your horse, think in terms of the "best" quality you can afford. Take words like "rich" out of your vocabulary; they tell you nothing about your hay. Forget "old", "last year's", "poor quality" and "straw" when trying to find low sugar/starch hay.
Think in terms of how many Mcal your horse needs per day, how many grams of protein he needs, and calcium/phosphorus balance based on test results, not on whether it's "grass" or "alfalfa". Look and test for sugar plus starch equal to 10% or less for an IR or laminitic horse - low sugar/starch does not mean compromising on energy, protein or quality. Avoid excessively high iron levels in forage if you can - it may be an indication of poorly maintained fields or high surface contamination, and has been shown to be "pro-inflammatory". 

You can figure your horse's requirements in many places (see the  Analyzing Hay and Feeds article), find out what your forage supplies from the test results, then the rest is just addition and subtraction. (Well, maybe not "just" but not rocket science either. You might want to try on Dr. Kellon's basic nutrition class - NRC Plus - for starters.)
And use the straw for bedding your cows and goats.


  1. Great information, well done post - thanks for helping to share this info!

  2. Sensible facts! This should appear in "The" instead of the fluff! Talk about non-nutritive - that article was non-nutritive!


  3. Hey Karen ~ nice to see you back and riding. I'll think of you (and get inspired to work harder) next time I go to Curves.

  4. We know "carbs" are the buzzword de jour - but not all horses need low carb hay. And it's NOT sugar that makes a horse overweight, it's CALORIES and lack of exercise - just like that gal I saw in the mirror this morning : )