By Ceileidh Sager
A hay shortage is a nightmare no horse owner wants to face. If your area has been affected by drought and you are anticipating a shortage of forage, begin making slight changes to your horse’s rations early on. Diet alterations should occur incrementally over two to three weeks to prevent colic and other dangerous digestive issues.
The importance of forage in your horse’s diet cannot be understated. Forage, including hay and pasture, are high in fibre, which is crucial for maintaining a healthy digestive system.
Dry, long-stem hay should constitute, at the very minimum, 50 percent of a horse’s daily feed, preferably more. Always feed your horse according to the weight of the feed, not its volume. A horse should consume a minimum of one percent of his body weight in forage daily (e.g. a mature 1200-pound horse in light work requires an absolute minimum of 12 pounds of forage per day), preferably more like one and a half to two percent.
Breeding stallions, broodmares, young stock, older horses, and horses in intensive work have increased nutritional needs. In the event of a drought, assess your hay supply and reserve the best quality hay available for any growing or senior horses.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Finding good quality hay during drought can become difficult. Your highest quality hay should be reserved for the youngest and oldest horses.
When facing a hay shortage, always choose the highest quality hay your budget can support, but remember that the physical bulk, or fibre content, of the forage is more important than the nutritive value of the hay.
“Try to purchase hay on a per pound basis,” Susan Murray, Communications Adviser for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), suggests as a way of keeping your hay bill affordable. “Hay in large round bales tends to be less expensive, followed by large squares, whereas small squares are the most expensive and difficult to find.”
Basic networking may be your next best bet.
“Network with hay producers and dealers to help with sourcing what you need,” advises Murray. Your provincial Hay Listing Service is another good resource.
Maximize your hay supply by storing it properly under cover and off the ground to prevent spoilage.
“Reduce feeding losses by using properly designed outside feeders,” adds Murray. A wide variety of round bale feeders and slow feed hay nets are available on the market. Feeders will reduce waste and extend feeding times, saving you money and keeping your horses’ digestive systems happier.
If you are forced to stretch your hay supply, consider forage substitutes. Partial replacements for hay include haylage, hay cubes, straw, hay pellets, and beet pulp, but completely replacing long stem forage is not recommended.
Haylage, which is typically high in protein and energy, is wrapped tightly with plastic or a bag immediately after baling. If the bag is torn, the parts of the haylage exposed to the oxygen will spoil. Botulism is also a concern, and horses should be vaccinated against botulism before they are fed haylage or silage.
While pasture is a solution for summer hay shortages, it is not an option during the winter months in Canada.
Alfalfa (sometimes mixed with timothy) cubes are easy to store and transport. The risk of choke associated with feeding cubes dry is easily negated by soaking them in water for approximately ten minutes prior to feeding. When only poor quality hay is available, supplement rations with up to two to six pounds of cubes per horse per day. Hay pellets are also a possible forage substitute.
Beet pulp contains no vitamin content and limited protein, but is a good source of fermentable fibre. It must be soaked in water for one to twelve hours before feeding; store in a cool place while soaking so that it doesn’t turn rancid. The average mature horse can be fed up to ten pounds (dry weight) per day, but beet pulp should not be the sole source of nutrition.
Concentrates should not serve as a substitute for hay. Diets that are low in fibre and high in concentrates have been proven to increase the risk of gastric ulcers and colic, as well as behavioural problems such as wood chewing.
Horses need to drink one and a half to two litres of water for every pound of feed consumed daily. Ensuring adequate water intake is absolutely critical to your horse’s health, so provide fresh, clean water at all times.
Whenever you make significant alterations to your horse’s diet, it’s a good idea to consult with your vet or equine nutritionist to come up with a customized feed program.
Feeding horses during drought can become increasingly difficult as hay supplies and quality dwindle. Through assessing your current inventory, properly storing and economically feeding what you have, and incorporating substitutes, you can manage to keep your horses happy and healthy through hay shortages.
Main Article Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal - Central & Atlantic Edition.