Roles of Forages in Horse Diets

Aug 17, 2020

Tara Jo Bina
Countryside Feed Livestock Nutrition
Analyzing protein, energy, vitamins, minerals, starch, etc. is important when choosing the right feeds for your horse. Often we stress over these nutrients in grains and supplements but tend to overlook the importance of the quality of forage provided to our horses.

Generally, the recommended minimum forage intake for horses is 1.5% of their body weight, but horses can easily consume 2 – 2.5% of their body weight daily. To put this into context, a 1000-pound horse needs to eat at least 15 pounds but can eat 20 to 25 pounds of dry forage a day! That is a lot of hay and makes up a majority of horses’ total diets, so ensuring they are getting quality forage is very important.
The fact that most horses are able to maintain body weight with minimal grain supplementation, while being very active makes it obvious their digestive systems are designed to digest forages. Horses are referred to as “hind gut fermenters”, this means they are very efficient at fermenting forages in their cecums in order to provide protein, energy, and other nutrients for the horse to absorb and utilize. Horses are actually able to meet majority of the nutritional requirements to maintain body condition just from consuming high quality forages! This means feeding higher quality hays can reduce the amount of grain needed in equine diets. To get tips on selecting high quality hays click here.

Forages are essential for a horse’s digestive system to function properly. Providing ample, high-quality hay to horses is one of the best practices for limiting digestive upsets because it allows horses to utilize energy from digestible fiber instead starches and sugars  present in grains. That being said, grains and supplements definitely have their place in equine diets to fill in the nutritional gaps forages leave. But they do tend to cause problems, such as ulcers and colic, when fed in too high of quantities.

Pasture is a very common source of forage for horses, but in times of the year where grass is limited stored forages such as hay is a great option. Alfalfa and several different grass hays are great forage sources. Peleted forms of these hays are also good options, especially for older horses that struggle to chew their feed. Understandig the quality of your forages is important for developing the best diet for your horse. For example, horses fed prairie hay will need a higher protein supplement than a horse supplemented with alfalfa hay.

Contact your Countryside Feed representative to discuss the impact of forages on your horse and to help you decide what supplementation strategy is best for the forages you have on farm.

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