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Hay Alternatives

Hay, Hay Alternatives

Hay Alternatives can come in very handy to supplement or complete your horse’s diet. But when are they necessary and how do you incorporate them into your feed program?

 Pellets. Alfalfa. Cubes. Grass. Chopped Forage. Safe Starch. Timothy.  It’s easy to get bogged down by all the options out there.  Knowing if, when and which option may be best suited for your horse can get downright confusing.  There are horses with bad dentition; mal-nourished horses that are being brought back to better health.  Horses that need a little extra gut fill, a little more fiber, but do not need additional feed.  There are years when your hay load for the winter just didn’t test as well as you had expected. There are even times when hay is just hard to come by. These are all common situations where Hay Alternatives can be helpful. 

First off, horses were designed to be grazers.  Think back in time, before horses were domesticated, how did they survive?  What did they eat?  Their digestive systems are programed to eat numerous small meals a day, filled with lots of fiber and lots of movement.  They were created to be free range, herd animals that spend their days grazing and moving about in search of the best forage.  The continual movement and slow but steady gut fill are vitally important to their overall health and wellbeing.  Research has shown us that horses should consume 1.5%-3% of their body weight in forage a day, thus making forage the foundation and biggest bulk of a horse’s diet. 

Nowadays, most horses no longer have the freedom to roam wherever they please in search of the best grazing grounds.  Instead, they live in stalls and/or small paddocks; Some may have turnout in a large pasture for the day or even just a few hours of turnout.  Others have the option to live outdoors, but, regardless, the boundaries of their paddock or pasture limits them in what and how much fresh forage they can consume.  Consequently, due to limited fresh forage options in their enclosures or other health reasons, we supplement with hay. 

While each horse and situation can require a different approach, the traditional line of thinking lies in the length of the stem.  When an abundance of fresh pasture forage is not available or not conducive to the horse’s individual health situation, the next option most rely on is baled hay; followed by chopped forage, then hay cubes and lastly hay pellets. This is all according to the length of the forage material.   

Fresh Pasture Forage > Baled Hay > Chopped Forage > Hay Cubes > Hay Pellets

And here’s why. You have probably heard about the benefits of ‘long-stemmed’ hay.  The ‘long stem’ (meaning 2 or more inches in stem length) is important for several reasons.

  • Long-stemmed hay requires more chewing
    • more chewing simulates the horse’s natural behavior of grazing
      • because the horse has an outlet for this natural grazing behavior, he/she is less likely to develop bad habits such as:
        • wood chewing
        • cribbing/wind sucking
        • eating the bedding
        • stall pacing
    • more chewing produces more saliva
      • saliva offers high levels of calcium and sodium bicarbonate which provide an added buffer against gastric acid in the stomach (ultimately helping to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers)
  • Long-stemmed hay offers 2 plus inches of fibrous stem material to go thru the digestive track
    • 2 plus inches of fibrous stem material in the stomach helps to create a basket, if you will, to reduce the amount of gastric acid sloshing around in the stomach (ultimately helping to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers)
    • 2 plus inches of fibrous stem material is important for the good bugs/bacteria in the gut. They are more easily able to attach themselves to the longer stemmed material which, therefore, improves the horse’s ability to digest their food
    • 2 plus inches of fibrous stem material also takes longer to go thru the digestive track. When fed prior to grains the slowing of the feed material thru the digestive track allows the horse more time to better digest and utilize their feed

Fresh Pasture Forage > Baled Hay > Chopped Forage > Hay Cubes > Hay Pellets

The further down the line you go, the shorter the stem.  The shorter the stem, thus forfeits the benefits of long-stem.  So, why would anyone use anything BUT baled hay when adequate fresh forage is not available or not conducive to the horse’s individual health situation?  The answer to that question is vast.  Remember when I mentioned earlier that each horse and situation can require a different approach?  In a nutshell, that’s the answer. 

If you have questions about which hay alternative may be the best option for your horse, please contact one of our Equine Specialist at The Mill. 





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