Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) has been cultivated as fodder for horses for over 2000 years, having originated from Iran before spreading across the world as Persians, Greeks and Romans expanded their empires, bringing their horses and their feed with them. As it is in the same plant family as peas, beans and clover, there is a good reason why alfalfa has been used for feeding horses for all this time – it is both safe and nutritious.
Discover exactly why we love alfalfa below, how Dengie alfalfa differs from the alfalfa hay that is used in other countries and the potential alfalfa health benefits for your horse.
Also known as lucerne, the fibre in alfalfa is a great source of slow-release energy which can be used for maintenance, work or even weight gain. Studies have shown that using alfalfa and oil as energy sources resulted in horses being less reactive to new situations compared to those fed cereal based feeds.
The amount of energy alfalfa supplies is often under-estimated. Alfa-A Original contains as much energy as a cool mix, meaning for many horses, there is no need to use cereal-based feeds at all. This is one of the key alfalfa health benefits as cereals contain starch which is associated with increased risk of issues such as equine gastric ulcers (EGUS) and laminitis
The alfalfa plant has a very low content of both starch and water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC) which include simple sugars and storage sugars such as fructan. When oil is added as a coating to alfalfa such as in Alfa-A Oil, sugar levels are typically less than 5% even though the energy level is 12.5MJ which is comparable to a competition or conditioning mix. Horse feeds are rarely (if ever) sugar-free, as even straw contains some sugar, but the very low sugar and starch content is a key alfalfa health benefit for your horse. Our ‘No Added Sugar’ logo is an easy way to identify the lowest sugar options available which include Alfa-A Molasses Free and Hi-Fi Molasses Free.
Due to its low starch and sugar content, alfalfa is suitable for those prone to laminitis as well as those with muscle problems such as PSSM and ERS.
Protein has historically been thought to be the cause of all evil in horses, but research has shown that this is far from the case. In fact, high starch or sugar diets are usually the culprits. Alfalfa is rich in quality protein, the term used to describe essential amino acids which are the building blocks of tissues such as muscle. Feeding alfalfa benefits horses in work or breeding stock by supplying good quality protein compared to other forages without significantly increasing the level of starch associated with cereal based feeds.
Alfalfa contains nearly three times as much calcium as grass, and as it is a plant, the calcium it contains is much more available to the horse than that from inorganic sources, such as limestone flour, which many supplements are based on.
Although rich in some minerals, alfalfa doesn’t contain a full range at the correct levels required. This means a balancer or supplement should be fed when using feeds from the Alfa-A and Hi-Fi range which are known as straights. .
The alfalfa plant is rich in beta-carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body. It also contains vitamin E and the B vitamins Thiamin, Riboflavin, Pantothenic acid, Biotin and Folic acid. Alfalfa also contains valuable levels of the trace mineral cobalt, which enables the horse to synthesise vitamin B12 which is involved in iron absorption and energy utilisation.
If you are considering alfalfa for horses, independent research has shown that alfalfa is a better buffer than grass forage due to the level of calcium, protein and other components it contains. This is why it is recognised as a useful feed for horses and ponies prone to Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) as it helps to regulate acidity throughout the digestive tract. Although the significance of colonic or hind gut ulcers is somewhat disputed, there is no doubt that increased acidity in the hind gut is detrimental to the microbiota. Alfalfa benefits the hindgut microbiome as it is low in starch and is broken down to volatile fatty acids by the microbiota. One of these, butyrate, is the energy source of the colonocytes (gut cells) themselves. Feeding a high fibre diet therefore not only provides fuel for work but also the gut tissue too.
For further horse feed advice and information on feeding alfalfa for horses, as well as how they can benefit from an alfalfa-based diet, please contact one of our nutrition experts here at Dengie.