Can I feed chopped alfalfa to horses with ulcers?
A common question we see being asked on social media is ‘Can I feed chopped alfalfa to horses with ulcers?’ Unfortunately, a lot of confusion surrounds the relationship between alfalfa and gastric ulcers. This is often because key details from research papers are missed or omitted to such an extent that the original findings are completely lost in the inevitable soundbites that perpetuate, particularly on social media.
It is very important to start by noting that no studies have been published that have found a negative effect from feeding alfalfa to adult horses for any kind of ulcers or for any age of horse in relation to squamous ulcers.
Papers found positive effects from feeding alfalfa to horses
In fact, many papers have been published that found positive effects from feeding alfalfa to horses at levels that reflect typical practices such as Lybbert et al. (1997), Nadeau et al. (2003), Bäuerlein et al., (2020). Anecdotally, many vets and researchers exploring treatment options for ulcers, recommend alfalfa as part of the ration for both horses with Equine Squamous Gastric Disease (ESGD) and Equine Glandular Gastric Disease (EGGD). In the EGGD consensus statement from leading veterinary researchers, chaff or other forage is recommended to be fed before exercise. Whilst the authors don’t state alfalfa specifically, they equally do not recommend to avoid feeding chopped alfalfa to horses, which they would clearly do if there was any evidence of it being a risk factor or issue for horses diagnosed with EGGD.
Why are some people concerned about feeding chopped alfalfa to horses?
To date, the papers cited by those suggesting chopped alfalfa isn’t suitable for horses emanate from one research group based in Germany and relate to some studies conducted in weanling foals.
So let’s take a closer look at this work by Fetke et al. (2015) and Vondran et al. (2016). This was first presented at the EWEN conference in 2014 by the research group leader Professor Ingrid Vervuert. There are a few important points to consider in relation to these papers:
- Both come from the same research group based in Germany.
- They are both in weanling foals – EGGD is recognised as being correlated with stress, as well as other factors such as pain
- The incidence of ulcers was high at the start of the study even before any of the trial diets were introduced
It is also very important to consider how much alfalfa chaff was fed to foals in these trials. In Fedtke et al. (2015) the weight of alfalfa was 5.5kgs of alfalfa chaff (between 11 and 15 Stubbs scoops) along with corn silage, grass silage and 2kgs oats. In Vondran et al. (2016) the level of alfalfa fed was 3kgs (6 Stubbs scoops) which was again alongside oats.
Nowhere near this level of alfalfa chaff is fed to weanlings in the UK and so this study is not reflective of a real-world scenario. Does this mean it should be disregarded? No, but equally it doesn’t mean we should conclude with any certainty that more typical levels of alfalfa chaff, i.e. 1 to 2 Stubbs scoops or 1kg per day, present a risk even to weanling foals. In fact, the authors themselves state that “from our study it is still not clear whether the fine or the harsh structure may have an impact on mucosa health”.
Research found that alfalfa hay positively affects the squamous mucosa
A subsequent paper from the same research group (Bäuerlein et al., 2020) compared alfalfa hay to grass hay. They found that alfalfa hay positively affects the squamous mucosa. Professor Vervuert who co-authored the Fedetke and Vondran papers, presented a paper in March 2023 where she referred to alfalfa as the “Queen of forage plants” and made no reference to needing to use it with caution for any horse with ulcers. She also advocates the use of straw in the same paper. Proceedings are available from: 11th EEHNC | Equine Health and Nutrition Congress (equine-congress.com)
Another paper that is often cited inaccurately is le Jeune at al. (2009). This paper explored brood mares kept at grass fed either alfalfa hay or a mix of alfalfa and grass hay with all mares receiving a relatively small amount of grain (0.9kgs). The mares were kept in groups so there was no way of knowing how much each of the mares consumed, which is a limitation of a study conducted in a commercial stud. The authors also note that the limitation of this study was that it was on one stud farm, in one location. Despite being at pasture, mares in both groups had ulcers. The authors do not attribute this to the presence of alfalfa in the ration. In fact they highlight the exact opposite position in their discussion:
“A direct link between diet and gastric ulceration in our population of mares could therefore not be made. It is possible, however, that the mares in our study are prioritizing the highly palatable grain for alfalfa hay and grass from the pasture and are therefore minimizing the buffering effects of alfalfa and pasture grazing, potentially contributing to the higher than expected prevalence of gastric ulceration in this population”
The authors are suggesting that it is the lack of the mares consuming the alfalfa that means the beneficial buffering conferred from consuming alfalfa is not achieved.
What can we conclude about feeding chopped alfalfa to horses?
The aim of sharing this information is to try and present the results from studies in a balanced way, exploring the details from the studies that matter: how much chopped alfalfa is fed to horses, to what age of horses and in what circumstances. With this detail we can make an informed decision as to the relevance of these findings to our own horses when they do not reflect the findings of any other study and when vets, researchers and experienced nutritionists from around the world advocate the use of alfalfa.
If you have any further questions about feeding chopped alfalfa to horses with ulcers or would like our nutrition team to review your horse’s ration please call our Feedline on 01621 841188 or fill in our Feed Advice form.