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The alfalfa crop has been used as forage for livestock for many centuries. Early writings indicate it was used in Asia before 700 BC. It is thought to have been cultivated first in Iran. The name alfalfa comes from the Arabic language, and means "best fodder". The crop made its way to Europe and then to north and south America. Early introductions to north America, where production in the early 1700's can be documented, didn't fare well. Alfalfa brought from South America to California during the Gold Rush were better adapted. From California the crop spread to the Midwest, and then further eastward.

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Alfalfa often the preferred forage for horses because of its high quality, high digestibility, and good roughage value. Well preserved alfalfa hay should be the foundation of a feeding program for young growing horses, recreational horses, and active horses. The links above will cover a horses digestive system, nutritional needs and how to select alfalfa hay. Information on feeding, purchasing and storing. Also included is myths and realities on feeding horses.

Anne Rodiek  (excerpts' from hay for Horses: Alfalfa or Grass)

Alfalfa hay has been both heralded and maligned as a feed for horses. Tradition holds that timothy hay and oats are the best feeds for horses, and that alfalfa and corn spell disaster. Alfalfa hay may not be the best feed for all horses in all situations, but it contains nutrients needed for many classes of horses. Grass hay falls short of meeting the nutrient requirements of high production life stages, but is an excellent filler for horses that require bulk in the diet. An understanding of the nutrient requirements of horses compared to the nutrient content of alfalfa hay or grass hay will help nutritionalist, hay producers, and horse owners make informed decisions about what type of hay to feed to horses.

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Alfalfa: An ideal legume hay

Alfalfa is the most important forage legume grown in the United States. It is the most widely adapted perennial forage legume. It has the highest yield potential and the highest feeding value of all adapted forage legumes. Alfalfa is a versatile plant that can be used as a high quality feed for horses and livestock, as a soil improver, and for human consumption (sprouts, etc). (Table 5)

Alfalfa and/or alfalfa grass hay is the most important hay in the U.S. horse industry. Although predominantly fed as baled hay, it can also be fed as chopped hay, cubes, or pellets. It is palatable and the hay of preference for Horses. Quality alfalfa hay has high protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals. Alfalfa is highly digestible and usually contains more cell solubles, less cellulose, and hemicellulose, higher protein, lower fiber, and higher realtive feed value (RFV) than grass.

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SELECTING HAY FOR HORSES

 

Recognition of differences in nutrient content of various hays allows you to match hay type to horse type. Alfalfa is typically much higher in protein and calcium than other hays used for horses and may also be higher in energy and total digestible nutrients. Table 1 illustrates the differences between alfalfa and several other hays commonly fed to horses. Because alfalfa is more nutrient dense, it is almost always a better value when the price per ton of various hays is similar. In addition, because alfalfa tends to be more palatable, horses will usually waste less, which also enhances its economic value.

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1 Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40546

Table 1: Nutrient Value of Various Hays Commonly Fed to Horses

 

Hay Variety Digestible Energy (Mcal/lb) Total Digestible Nutrients (%) Crude Protein (%) Calcium (%) Phosphorus (%)
Alfalfa .8 to 1.1 Mcal/lb 48 to 55% 15 to 20% .9 to 1.5% .2 to .35%
Timothy or Orchard Grass .7 to 1.0 Mcal/lb 42 to 50% 7 to 10% .3 to .5% .2 to .35%
Tall Fescue .7 to .9 Mcal/lb 40 to 48% 5 to 9% .3 to .5% .2 to .35%
 

As shown in table 1, the exact level of nutrients in any hay type is variable. The biggest determining factor in nutrient content of alfalfa hay is the stage of maturity at harvest. Very early maturity alfalfa hay often has a soft texture, is very leafy, and has a high nutrient density and palatability. Conversely, plants harvested in late maturity will have more stem and less leaf than plants harvested in early maturity, and the stems will usually be thick and woody. The older the plant is at the time of harvest the lower the nutrient value and the palatability.

Horse owners/managers have been trained to associate hay quality with leafiness. As a result, many people will select early maturity hay and discriminate against more mature hay regardless of the type of horse being fed. However in many cases, mid-to-late maturity alfalfa hay is a more appropriate feed source than early maturity alfalfa hay, especially for horses with lower nutrient requirements. Barren mares, retirees and horses used for light recreational riding have relatively low nutrient requirements and can meet most, if not all, of their nutrient requirements with hay alone even when they are fed late or mid-maturity alfalfa. Table 2 gives some general guidelines for hay consumption by horses of different classes when they are fed alfalfa hay of early, mid or late maturity. Note that when early maturity alfalfa hay is fed to horses at maintenance, the recommended intakes are very low.

If horses receive low levels of feed (even when nutrient requirements are satisfied) they are inclined to redirect their chewing needs on other objects such as fences, stalls, or trees. Consequently, it is not desirable to restrict hay intake in horses at maintenance. Alternatively, if horses with low nutrient needs are given free access to early maturity alfalfa hay, excess nutrient intake and weight gain will occur.

Early maturity alfalfa hay is most effective in feeding programs for horses with high nutrient requirements, such as growing horses and lactating mares. Early maturity alfalfa hay is very palatable and provides more nutrients in less volume so it is also very useful for horses with poor appetites. Lactating mares, growing horses and horses in moderate to heavy work usually cannot eat enough of any hay to meet their relatively high nutrient requirements, and thus these horses will need some grain in their diets. However, when early maturity hays are fed, the amount of grain in the diet can often be reduced. High grain intakes have been implicated as a risk factor in equine colic, therefore any management practice that reduces grain intake may reduce colic risk as well. Whenever horses are fed large amounts of grain, they should still be fed at least 1 lb of hay for every 100 lb of body weight. Thus, the minimum daily hay intake for any 1100 lb horse is 11 lb/day. This amount of hay will not meet a horse's nutrient needs, but it will provide enough fiber to maintain the health of the gastrointestinal tract.

The type and amount of other feeds in the ration will always impact the amount of hay consumed, but in general, horse owners/managers should try to maximize forage intake and then supplement with grain or other feeds to meet any unfulfilled requirements. One of the big advantages of alfalfa over other hays is the amount of protein it provides. When alfalfa hay is fed, the amount of crude protein provided by the grain can be reduced. Reducing the protein level in the grain usually results in an economic saving.

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Table 2: Approximate Daily Intakes when Different Maturities of Hay are Fed to Horses with Average Mature Weight of 1100 lba.

 

Type of Horse Late Maturity Mid Maturity Early Maturity Comment
Maintenance, Very Light Work, Early Gestation 24 lb/d 20 lb/d 16 lb/d More hay may be needed in cold winters; some grain may be necessary for a few horses
Late gestation 22 lb/d 20 lb/d 18 lb/d Many mares will not eat more than 20 lb of hay/d and will need grain if late maturity hay is fed; all will need some mineral supplement
Lactation 28 lb/d 22 lb/d 18 lb/d Most lactating mares will need about 6-8 lb of grain/d in addition to hay
Yearling 25 lb/d 20 lb/d 15 lb/d Most will require grain in addition to hay. Amount of hay and grain will vary with age, type of hay and situation (sale preparation; breaking, etc)
Weanling 15 lb/d 11 lb/d 8 lb/d All will need grain and hay. Amount of hay and grain will vary with age; most will need 5-9 lb of grain/d
Performance Horse 22 lb/d 18 lb/d 14 lb/d Amount of hay and grain will vary depending upon level of work; most will receive 6-12 lb of grain/d
 

a When horses have no access to pasture. When pasture is available, the amount of hay needed will be reduced.

 

Please read on, additional information regarding feeding, and cause are listed on Digestion, Nutritional Needs, and Myth and Realities

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References Courtesy of the following sources:

Anne Rodiek  (excerpts' from hay for Horses: Alfalfa or Grass)

Lawrence, L.M. K.J. Moore, H.F. Hintz, E.H. Jaster and L. Wischover. 1987. Acceptability of alfalfa hay treated with an organic acid preservative for horses. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 67:217.

NAHMS. 1998. Part II. Baseline Reference of 1998 Equine Health and Management. National Animal Health Monitoring System, USDA:APHIS:VS, Ft Collins CO

NRC. 1989. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academy Press, Washington D.C.

Raymond, S.L., E.F. Curtis, L.M. Winfield and A.F. Clarke. 1997. A comparison of respirable particles associated with various forage products for horses. Equine Pract. 19:23.

Russell, M.A. and G.A. Rich. 1993. Selecting hay for horses. In, The Horse Industry Handbook, American Youth Horse Council, Lexington KY

Todd, L.K., W.C. Sauer, R.J. Chistopherson, R.J. Coleman and W.R. Caine. 1995. The effect of feeding different forms of alfalfa on nutrient digestibility and voluntary intake in horses. J. Anim. Physiol. (Anim. Nutr.) 73:1

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