Horse hay alternatives: 5 tips for facing a shortage
As a horse owner, there are few things more stressful than dealing with a hay shortage. Hearing the dreaded words, “I’m sorry, but I’m all out for the year,” can leave even the most prepared owner scrambling. Unfortunately, changing weather patterns have caused hay shortages to become increasingly more common throughout the U.S. Some areas have experienced sustained droughts, making it nearly impossible for crops to yield adequate supplies, while other areas have experienced several consecutive years of extremely wet spring and summer seasons, making it difficult for producers to cut hay in a timely manner. This has resulted in decreased supplies, lower-quality forages and record high prices. While some parts of the country are still producing ample supplies of high-quality hay, accessibility for those experiencing shortages can be limited by the challenge and expense of shipping.
Things would be far less challenging if we could just increase concentrates to make up for the decreased amount of hay in our horses’ diets. While it may be tempting to do this when hay supplies are limited, we must keep in mind that horses require forage in their diets; removing it could have major health and behavioral consequences. A constant supply of fiber is required to keep the microbial populations in the horse’s intestinal tract happy, and limiting or removing forage can result in issues such as colic and gastric ulcers. In addition, limiting forage can result in increased occurrences of unwanted vices, such as wood-chewing.
If possible, at least part of the fiber in the diet should come from long-stemmed forages, like hay or pasture grasses. Horses are grazing animals that have evolved to consume small amounts of forage throughout the day — and long-stemmed fiber provides them with much-needed “chew time.” Short-stemmed and processed fiber sources take less time to consume, which can lead to boredom and, in turn, the development of stereotypical vice behaviors. Research has shown, however, that horses can survive on a diet featuring only short-stemmed or processed forages as the source of fiber. As long as care is taken to decrease the horses’ boredom — which can be done by feeding multiple small meals, among other strategies — these alternative forage sources can be used to stretch your limited hay supply.
What steps can you take if you are a horse owner facing a hay shortage?
- Get the most out of your hay supply. Purchasing higher-quality hay gives you an upper hand because it allows you to meet your animal’s nutritional requirements with less than what would be required if you were feeding a lower-quality hay. Feeding smaller, more frequent meals and using hay nets and feeders can greatly reduce the amount of hay that is wasted.
- Increase grazing. Depending on the availability and time of year, increase the time spent on pasture to allow for the increased consumption of fresh grass, which can help to reduce your hay burden. A rotational grazing strategy, along with a carefully organized pasture maintenance plan, can help thwart the detrimental effects increased grazing time can have on pasture quality.
- Consider purchasing bagged pelleted, cubed or chopped hay. These items can be purchased at many local feed supply stores, making them easily accessible alternative forage sources. They can be made from grass or legume hay, but the most common sources are timothy and alfalfa. Although they are more expensive than traditional baled hay, these alternatives are both dust- and mold-free, can be easily stored for long periods of time and often come with a minimum basic nutritional analysis on the bag. Pellets, which are formed from dried, ground hay, provide the nutrition and fiber of standard forage but do not provide the same bulk for gut fill as long-stemmed forages. Cubes are simply pressed chopped hay, but caution should be used when feeding cubes to horses that are prone to choke. For senior horses or those with dental issues, soaking pellets and cubes can make this source of forage somewhat easier to consume. Chopped hay — often called chaff — is simply hay that has been cut into short pieces prior to bagging. At one time, chaff was made primarily from straw that provided little nutritional value, but higher-quality grass and legume chaff is now commercially available.
- Haylage may help. Although they are not a popular feed choice in the U.S., ensiled forages can also be safely fed to horses, provided that some precautions are taken. Haylage should only be purchased from reputable sources, as incorrect preparation or storage can result in contamination by mold or botulism bacteria. Because of its unique taste and smell, it may take time for horses to get used to eating haylage. It is important to note that haylage can actually provide more nutrients than baled hay, as the ensiling process retains nutrients better than traditional hay curing.
- Extend your hay supply with a commercially available product. While beet pulp is not appropriate as the sole source of fiber in a horse’s diet, it is a good, palatable source of digestible fiber. It is also relatively inexpensive. Hay stretcher pellets and soy hulls are also good sources of fiber, and they, too, can be used as a partial replacement for hay — but, once again, they should not be used as the only source of fiber in the diet. In addition, many feed producers offer lines of complete feeds, and while these are often marketed for senior horses, they can be found and used for horses at all stages of life. When fed according to manufacturer guidelines, these complete feeds may be fed as the sole ration, requiring no additional forage source. Complete feeds often contain hay meal and are fortified to meet all of the nutritional needs of the horse. They also contain a higher amount of crude fiber than a standard commercial feed.
No horse owner wants to face the headache of a hay shortage. Ensuring that your horses are receiving adequate nutrition during these times can be challenging no matter how well you have planned. Fortunately, several options exist that can help you stretch your hay supply and keep your horses happy and healthy through these stressful times.