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Why better hay is cost efficient...
Why better hay is cost effecient...


This cool weather is a wake up call for winter which will almost surely be here.  With winter following such a dry summer and fall, the time to supplement our horses is here already.  In greatest need will be the forages, as most of the grass is gone.  With horses being herbivores (grass eaters), we should concentrate on their need for hay.  The rule of thumb when feeding horses is that if more money is going to be spent on their nutritional needs, spend it first on better hay.

 The horse needs a minimum of 2 % of their body weight in forages each day.  For the 1000 pound horse, this would be 20 pounds of hay or grass.  This is about 1/3 of a bale of hay.  Most of us will find our horses willing to eat more than this amount.  The amount they can hold is limited by the capacity of the bowel.  The amount they want is regulated somewhat by the quality.

This is the reason why--when evaluating horses that have been fed a  low quality roughage with little else--they will have a “pot belly.”  This can be particularly common in foals on grass or hay rations, as they have less ability to digest the long stem forages than their older kin.

Unlike us, horses eat when they are hungry.  If they are eating mature grass or a low quality hay, that hunger may not be easily satisfied.  As a result they will continue eating more hours each day.  In addition, because of the coarseness of the hay, it must stay in the intestinal tract longer: in order to be digested and to break down the fiber within.

At first the “gut” may not have the capacity to hold enough roughage to meet the horse’s needs.  As the horse continues to eat trying to meet this need, its intestines will stretch.  With this increased capacity the abdomen itself will have to expand to hold the expanded intestines.  Thus the “pot belly.”  In addition, the stool will be a hard, very well formed biscuit.

The enlarged abdomen can cause one to be misled when evaluating the horse’s body condition.  Just because they look well rounded does not mean they are in good body condition.  We must still lay the flat of our hand on the rib cage to really evaluate the amount of fat cover.  Often the horse with a large abdomen will have a hard feeling rib cage.  There is not enough fat between the skin and ribs to cushion our hand, or to lubricate the skin so that we can easily move it around.

If we are feeding or grazing a mature fescue (which will be light brown in color with rough coarse stems and few leaves) there may be several seed heads present indicating the hay was very mature when baled.  As the maturity increases, the digestibility, protein, and other nutrients decrease.  With this hay, the calories needed to digest it may meet or exceed those gained from it.  What a deal for the overweight and founder-prone horse, but not such a good deal for the foal or working horse!

With lower nutrient levels, there are also fewer vitamins for the skin, blood cells, etc.  So, this thin horse can also be anemic and have a dull hair coat that is longer than those who live across the road and are fed better quality forage.

We have about chewed this topic of poor quality forages into a paste.  Next week we will discuss how the better quality forages can improve the horse’s body condition and appearance.

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