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Winter feeding, more on forages...
Winter feeding, more on forages...

CHOOSING THE  FORAGES FOR WINTER FEEDING

Last week we discussed the affect low quality forages have on the horse and its digestive system.  Basically, a low quality forage will take longer to digest and provide fewer nutrients than the better forage.  After some time on this forage the horse will likely develop an enlarged abdomen or "potbelly" and a rough haircoat.  The lower quality forages also provide fewer nutrients leading to anemia, poorer condition or body fat, and a hair coat that is longer and dull.

Fortunately all of these conditions can be improved simultaneously. With some ration changes we can improve the body condition and reduce the bulky size of the “potbelly.”  We are back to the original rule of thumb we discussed last week: the first step in improving the horse’s ration is to improve the forage quality.

As we improve the quality of hay, there will be more leaves, the color will tend to blue-green, and the stems will be smaller and softer.  This hay will offer the horse more nutrients for digestion.  The hay will take less time to chew and digest so it is in the digestive tract for a shorter  time.  Because of the hay quality, the horse’s hunger is satisfied quicker, and it eats less.

Some of the better quality hays available in our area include those with a combination of orchard grass and alfalfa, and the bluestems.  There are other very acceptable hays that can be brought in.  These include: timothy grass, which usually comes in from the north; alfalfa and alfalfa mixes; and bermuda hay from the south.  Your horse will tell you very quickly how tasty they find the hay.  If possible, try a few bales before buying a truck load.  In a few cases a hay that looks great will have little appeal for the horse.  If you want the statistics about the nutrients of a particular hay or hay mix, contact the University of Missouri Extension Office [or your local Extension Office, contacted through the State Land Grant College, each state is required to have one].  They will be happy to provide you with that information.  This may be especially appropriate if you are considering feeding a high quality alfalfa hay.

The second or later cutting alfalfa hays can present a feeding challenge for the horse.  This is such an excellent forage it can almost qualify as a concentrate.  The protein level may reach or exceed 20 %.  The digestibility can be so high there is little roughage provided by the leaves and very fine stems.  Of course, the horses love it!  If you have been grazing or feeding mature grass, and plan to offer a lush alfalfa hay, a few precautions are in order.  It has been our experience the high protein and low roughage content of these better hays can cause some intestinal upset when first fed.  There may be some diarrhea and occasional abdominal cramping.

To avoid problems during this transitional period, just be sure the horse is full of the forage they are used to before being given alfalfa.  Then give only a flake.  Repeat this routine for a week, and then increase the alfalfa. For maintenance, you may still want to feed the alfalfa with another roughage to keep the fiber level high enough to maintain proper digestion.  As we have mentioned before, and to put things in the most basic of terms, watch the stool.  If the hay is too rich or too high in digestibility, the stool will start looking like a cow-pile.  It should be formed like a biscuit that is soft and breaks apart easily when it falls on the ground.

The addition of alfalfa to the hay ration will reward you and the horse many times over.  Next week we will discuss this and how the “pot bellied” horse responds to the feed changes.

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