Hay Shortage? Forage Options for Feeding Horses

I hear there is going to be a severe hay shortage this winter because of the droughts and floods and I’m very worried that my horse will run out of food. Is there something else I can feed him or do you have a supplement that can replace hay?

Long-stem forage is necessary for normal digestive function and normal behavior in the horse. When horses are allowed to eat forage (hay or pasture) free-choice, they spend 50% of their time eating or grazing. However, if pellets (even pelleted hay) are the sole source of forage in the diet, horses only spend 10% of their time eating. That leaves a lot of time for behavioral problems to develop such as wood chewing, cribbing, mane and tail chewing, or eating dirt or feces. It may also set the horse up for serious health problems such as colic, laminitis and ulcers.

According to the Nutrient Requirements of Horses published by the National Research Council, horses should have a minimum of 1% of their body weight each day in forage. I’ll use my horse as an example. He weighs 1400 pounds and would need at least 14 pounds (1% of his body weight) of hay per day. Because hay bales and flakes can differ greatly in weight, I hung three flakes of his hay from a fish scale using baling twine to get an accurate weight. It came to seven pounds, meaning each flake weighs between two and two and a half pounds. By feeding him 3 flakes of hay morning and night, he is receiving 14 pounds of hay per day (plus pasture plus a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement).

If hay is becoming harder to get in your area or becoming too expensive, there are some ways to stretch your hay so it will last longer besides the obvious choices of hay cubes or hay pellets:

• Complete feeds – many commercial feed companies make an all-in-one product that contains both forage and grain (concentrate). When using complete feed as a hay stretcher, Purina Mills recommends replacing 50% of the hay with an equal amount of the complete feed and reducing grain by 0.5 to 1 pound. If replacing all of the hay and still feeding grain, feed the same amount of complete feed as you were feeding hay and reduce grain by 2 to 3 pounds. If using the complete feed as the sole ration, follow the directions on the bag. Don’t be surprised if you have to feed 15 to 20 pounds of a complete feed!
• Chopped hay – “Regular” chopped hay can be added to the diet in any amount, to stretch long-stem baled hay. With its Safe Starch Forage product though, Triple Crown provides not only chopped hay in a bag, but has fortified it so that when fed as directed (at least 20 pounds per day for a 1000 pound horse) it provides a 100% complete and balanced diet. Read chopped hay bags carefully so that you know if the product is just hay that will need fortified with additional grain, a ration balancer or multi-vitamin, or has already been fortified like this product.
• Hay Stretcher – Blue Seal makes this product, which is a large pellet with a nutritional profile similar to grass hay but slightly lower in fiber and higher in energy. It may be used to replace up to 50% of the hay in a horse’s diet on a pound-for-pound basis. Hay Stretcher is not fortified with vitamins or trace minerals so grain or a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement is still necessary.
• Beet pulp – This high-fiber product has a nutritional profile similar to alfalfa hay, and may be used to replace up to 25% of the hay in a horse’s diet. Like HayStretcher, grain or a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement is still necessary to complete and balance the diet.

In addition to replacing part or all of your horse’s hay with one of these products, there are some additional things you can do to stretch his forage. Feed smaller, more frequent meals so he’s less hungry in between and also wastes less. Feed on a mat or in a tub to prevent further wastage. Use a small hole hay net to slow your horse’s consumption down. And do what I did and accurately weigh your hay so you know you’re feeding the correct amount for your horse’s size.

Any time you change your horse’s diet, even if it’s from one kind of hay to another, there is the risk of a digestive disturbance that can lead to colic or laminitis. In fact, changes in hay increase your horse’s risk for colic by 10 times (vs 5 times when changing grain). Fortunately there are several products on the market specifically designed to protect the GI system. For example, EquiShure from Kentucky Equine Research contains a time-released hindgut buffer to decrease the chances of hindgut acidosis in at-risk horses. Yea-Sacc from Farnam stabilizes colon pH to help reduce the risk of digestive disorders and improves the digestibility of fiber. And our own SmartDigest Ultra contains prebiotics, probiotics, yeast and enzymes all shown to support normal GI function. Better yet, when it’s purchased in SmartPaks you are automatically eligible to apply for enrollment in ColiCare, our colic surgery reimbursement program.

I hope you are able to find some reasonably priced hay this winter but if you aren’t, at least now you have some ideas to make what little hay you have last longer without risking your horse’s health.