Whether your horses live on hundreds of acres of rolling green pastures, or they spend most of their time in stalls, forage is the most important part of your horses diet. Forage comes in many forms. Square and round bales, compressed bales, hay pellets, hay cubes, hay shreds, and of course grass. Hay also comes in two main types, Grass and Legumes. There are many types of hay available depending on your location. Since we are based out of Texas, we will discuss mainly the types of hay available here, Coastal/Bermuda, Tifton 85, and Alfalfa, and we will brush on other types of hay as well, such as timothy and orchard grass. In addition, we will discuss option for forage and hay in a drought stricken area.
Let's start out with the basics. Why is forage important, what are ways to feed it, and just how much hay should you be feeding? It is a common misconception that horses need grain. In a world where barns are growing and pastures are shrinking, grain is seen more and more and in larger and larger quantities. Let's stop right there. Horses are not made to digest grain, plain and simple. Now, obviously they do digest it, as hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of horses are fed several pounds of grain per day, but when it comes down to brass tax, grain was never meant to be part of a horses daily diet. We could get in to different types of grain and ways to feed, but I will save that for another blog. To put it simply, grain should be fed only to supplement the nutrients the horse is not receiving from his hay and other forage based diet.
So why is hay so important? It all starts with the digestive tract [pictured below]. The horses digestive tract is broken down into two parts, the foregut - consisting f the Stomach and the Small Intestine - and the hindgut - consisting of the colon, the cecum, and rectum. The horses stomach is considerably small in comparison to the intestines, and the overall size of the animal. Because of this, horses are much better off (and are actually designed to) eat small amounts of forage constantly, versus 1 or 2 large meals a day. For horses that are turned out on grass the majority of the time, this is not a very difficult thing to accomplish, but for horses kept in stalls or turned out on dirt, you may have to make some alterations.
For horses turned out that don't have much or any grass, Round Bales are a great option. Several horses can eat on one at a time, and usually horses wont just stand there and pig out until its gone, and depending on the number of horses and the amount of time they have access to the bale, the usually last about a week. Many people will put a net over the bale to prevent wasting hay, and nets with small holes make the horses eat slower so they bale lasts longer. For stalled horses, it is best to try and keep hay in front of them at all times. Fortunately for my readers, I live in the real world and understand this is not always an option, so break feedings down to several times a day, for hay especially, aim for at least 2 times, but a breakfast, lunch, dinner is best, with dinner obviously being the largest of the three to get them through the night. Again, small holed hay nets work wonders for horses that eat quickly. Most stalled horses are fed on a twice a day, AM/PM Schedule. Because horses aren't really made to digest grain, it is important to always feed hay first, and grain second. This gets the hindgut going, and makes it easier for the horses to breakdown and process the grain.
As with everything your horse eats, hay should always be fed from the ground. Again, this is how hey were designed. They were not made to eat above their heads, or even level to their shoulders... a concept a wish many barn designers and builders would get through their heads. Horses are VERY capable of picking up individual pieces of hay, while leaving shavings behind. If you are very concerned, sweep the shavings away from where your horses hay will be. Hay may also be fed in large muck buckets to keep it off the ground and in one place. For harder keepers, horses with allergies, horses that are subject to Choke, or horses with bad teeth, you can soak your hay as well.
How much hay and forage to feed your horse varies depending on each individual animal. Obviously a horse in work 6 days a week is going to burn more calories than a horse that spends 24 hours on a 2 acre paddock. On average, a horse should receive about 2% of their body weight in forage each day. Lets say the average horse is 1,000 lbs, that's 20lbs per day of forage, which is about 1/3 of a square bale. I can tell you right now, if I fed several of my horses 1/3 of a square bale each day and nothing more, animal control would be knocking on my door. Remember, also, that horses gain weight from hay and forage, not from grain, so if you notice your horse is loosing weight, or you have one that needs to gain a few pounds, increase the amount of hay and forage based meals rather than the amount of grain.
Ok, so now we know how to feed the forage, but how do you know what kind of forage to feed? There are so many types of hay, so many different forms, and just why exactly can't I feed "Cow Hay" to my horses? All this and more coming in Part Two! Stay Tuned!
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