All the facts and fiction about forage
Very few horse owners pay much attention to what usually makes up at least half of their horse's diet, which is probably partly due to the fact that many people perceive forage to just provide bulk and therefore, as long as the horse has something to chew on, it's doing the job.
Ensure your horse is consuming the right forage
The other factor that contributes to this lack of appreciation for forage is that many people don't have control over the forage that is fed to their horse. Unless you're lucky enough to have sufficient acres of your own to be able to make hay or haylage, the chances are you're buying it from someone else and that means it can be difficult to control what your horse is eating. However, there are ways that you can counter this and ensure that your horse is consuming the right forage for his needs.
The basic facts about forage
The basic characteristic of an herbivore is that it spends a long time eating foods that are relatively energy and nutrient sparse and it is necessary to eat for long periods in order to obtain sufficient energy and nutrients to survive.
The horse's digestive system has evolved to function most efficiently on this basis, which is why forage needs to make up such a large proportion of your horse's diet ration.
Not using the right forage can mean that no matter how careful you are to get the rest of the diet right, you are unlikely to achieve the results you want. Ignoring the contribution forage makes to your horse's requirements is the equivalent of you trying to lose weight but only eating low calorie food half of the time.
The most common types of forage for horses are grass, legumes such as alfalfa, and cereal straw. The climate in the UK means that it is necessary to use conserved forages at certain times of the year when availability of fresh forage is reduced.
Forages may be harvested as young plants, which tends to be the case for alfalfa in the UK as well as some grass or, they can be allowed to mature to create hay, haylage or even silage.
Hay v Haylage
The principle of conserving forage is based on removing water or oxygen in order to stop the forage from moulding or decaying. When making hay, the water content is reduced to below 20% whereas haylage typically has a water content of between 40 - 50%, which is not sufficiently dry enough to protect it and so it has to be wrapped to create an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment.
As haylage doesn't need to be "sun-dried" for as long as hay, it is usually harvested earlier in the season when the grass plants are younger. As younger plants are more digestible, harvesting them earlier creates a forage with a higher nutritional value and so horses tend to do better on it.
Horses are often willing to consume more haylage than hay if fed ad-lib. If you have a poor doer and are supplied with hay as part of your livery agreement, why not consider topping up with haylage to increase the amount of energy from forage your horse is receiving. Another alternative is to feed a highly digestible fibre such as alfalfa.
The differences between the good, the bad and the ugly forage
There are two main criteria that determine the quality of a forage; its nutritional value and its cleanliness and the two don't always go hand in hand. The first priority is that the forage is clean because it doesn't matter how many nutrients it contains, if it's dusty or mouldy it could result in respiratory problems. For horses with respiratory disease finding consistent clean forage can be difficult. Haylage is generally a much cleaner forage than hay but if you have a good doer, using haylage might not be practical solution. In this instance the Hi-Fi range of products are ideal hay replacers which can be fed on a weight for weight basis rather than hay.
High nutritional value forages are not always the most suitable for every horse and so this is where careful selection of the right forage can make a big difference to your horse's welfare. If selecting a forage for a good doer, it is advisable to find one that is low in energy as this will mean that more can be fed without promoting excessive weight gain. As a guide, the more like straw a hay looks, the more likely it is to have been harvested later and so will contain more indigestible material.
The opposite applies to poor doers as the more nutrients and energy they can gain from forage the less reliant on cereals they will be which is usually beneficial for their health. Older horses whose teeth are starting to wear out also benefit from softer, leafier hays as they are easier to chew. The leaf is where most of the nutrients are stored and so it usually follows that leafy hays contain more nutrients.
In a study supported by Dengie, the effects of poor dentition on forage consumption were explored. It was found that older horses with poor dentition refused their forage seven times more frequently when hay was used compared to a short chopped combination of alfalfa and grasses (Hi-Fi Senior), and in a given time period older horses consumed 68% less hay than horses with normal dentition. This difference was reduced to around 30% less when the short chop forage was used. When forage normally makes up such a large proportion of the total diet, it is apparent why older horses lose weight quickly when they are no longer able to chew easily. In these situations it is important that easy to chew forage is supplied either as short chops or even as soaked mashes such as products that contain sugar beet and alfalfa (Alfa-Beet).
If you want to know how good your forage is then a laboratory analysis can be conducted. To get a more realistic interpretation of the whole batch of forage, samples should be taken from a number of bales rather than just one. The cost of analysis can be quite high, particularly for trace minerals, and so if you are thinking about getting your forage analysed, consider which nutrients are most relevant to your horse. For example, if laminitis is of concern, then the sugar and starch levels are probably most relevant.
The mineral status of a forage tends to reflect the mineral content of the soil it is grown on. If your soil is deficient in a certain mineral then conserving forage from your own pasture means that you are compounding the deficiency. In these situations it is important to ensure that you supplement to counteract the deficiency and it may also be worth considering buying forage from another location that doesn't have the same deficiencies.
Too little forage can compromise your horse’s health
As herbivores have evolved on the basis that they eat for long periods of time, altering this fundamental process can significantly compromise their health and welfare. Just as for humans, a high fibre diet is vital for promoting regular bowel movements. Too little fibre can lead to an accumulation of gas in the horse's digestive tract, which can eventually result in colic symptoms.
An additional health problem associated with too little fibre is gastric ulcers. Originally highlighted as a problem affecting thoroughbreds, it is becoming apparent that the more we look for ulcers, the more we find them. Several scientific studies plus anecdotal reports are suggesting that leisure horses are also vulnerable to gastric ulcers. Good doers on restricted fibre intakes are particularly at risk as well as those not given fibre when travelling and competing.
If you would like further information on fibre or to talk to one of our nutritionists about fibre analysis please call 0845 345 5115.