Focus on Forage

For many horses, forage is the largest source of calories in the diet and unfortunately, the hardest for owners to control! In this issue, SPILLERS™ Nutritionist, Sarah Nelson, shares some top tips for managing forage intake in good doers.

How much forage should I feed?

While forage should ideally be fed ad lib, it is not always appropriate for easy keepers which often leaves owners questioning how much forage they should feed. In practice, the degree of restriction required will vary between individuals according to several factors. Where possible, try to find ways of reducing the calorie density of your forage e.g., feeding soaked hay or replacing part of the forage ration with mature, lower quality hay, rather than restricting the amount of forage fed.

For most horses, total forage intake should not be restricted to less than 1.5% of current bodyweight per day on a dry matter basis. On an ‘as fed’ basis (the amount you need to weigh out) this is equivalent to approximately 20 lb. of hay for an 1100 lb. horse without grazing, or 24 lb. if you intend to soak it before feeding.

The difference in feeding rates often causes confusion, especially as a quick calculation will tell you that 1.5% of 1100 lb. is 16.5 lb. Essentially all forage, contains some water and the water does not count towards your horse’s forage intake. Hay contains approximately 10-15% water which means if you weigh out 16.5 lb., approximately 2-2.5 lb. of it may be water. The portion that is left is described as ‘dry matter’. In simple terms, ‘as fed’ describes the amount of hay you weigh out, and ‘dry matter’ describes what you weigh out minus the water.

Due to the loss of nutrients (and therefore dry matter) into the water, each slice of hay will contain more water and less ‘hay’ post soaking. In fact, a hay net weighing 16.5 lb. may be equivalent to approximately 14 lb. dry matter or ‘actual hay’ before soaking and approximately 10 lb. after soaking!

Adjusting the amount of forage you weigh out according to the water content is important for ensuring you do not restrict your horse’s forage intake too severely, especially if they do not have access to grazing.

Counting droppings

It might cause a few raised eyebrows from non-horsey friends but counting droppings may be a more practical way of monitoring your horse’s forage intake, especially if you do not know their exact weight or they have access to grazing. If your horse is overweight, aim to reduce the number of droppings by a third initially and never by more half.

Grazing muzzles

Grazing muzzles have been shown to reduce grass intake by approximately 80% in ponies, regardless of the season which means they can be used in winter months also, provided the grass is long enough to be accessed through the base on the muzzle. Unsurprisingly, some horses and ponies will gain weight if only wearing a muzzle for part of their time at grass, so consider stabling or ‘non-grass turnout’ after removing your horse/ pony’s muzzle.

Grazing muzzle safety tips

  • Introduce your horse to wearing a muzzle gradually and make sure he is happy to graze and drink before leaving him unsupervised.
  • Look out for signs of rubbing or discomfort.
  • Check your muzzle regularly for signs of wear and tear.
  • Monitor your horse’s behavior for signs of distress and/ or frustration.
  • Look out for signs of bullying.
  • Check the length of your grass – if it is too long or too short your horse/ pony may not be able to graze at all while wearing a muzzle.
  • Muzzles should not be left on 24/7, even in horses and ponies used to wearing them.
  • Monitor to your horse or pony’s condition regularly to ensure they are not losing or gaining excess weight.
  • Long term use of a grazing muzzle may cause your horse or pony’s teeth to wear unevenly so make sure they are checked regularly by your vet or an equine dental technician.

Strip grazing

Strip grazing is a method of sectioning off a smaller section of the horse’s field using electric fencing. The fence is moved daily to provide gradual access to fresh grazing either with a back fence (see image A) or without a back fence (see image B). If used, the back fence is moved by the same amount as the lead fence to keep the over-all grazing area the same size.

Recent research found strip grazed ponies gained significantly less weight than ponies with free access to restricted ponies over a 28 period, regardless of whether a back fence was used. In practice, how far you should move the fence and possibly whether a back fence may be beneficial - will depend on many factors including the size of the field and how many horses are turned out in it, the quality and quantity of grass available and the rate of grass growth. Speak to a nutritionist for more advice.

Strip grazing tips

  • Always make sure your fence is electrified and check to assure it is working daily – even if your horse/ pony is normally respectful of electric fencing!
  • Keep spare posts, tape and batteries to hand – you never know when you might need to replace them
  • Remember, you will need to move your horse’s water if you are a back fence too – have additional buckets and a perhaps a longer hose pipe at the ready!
  • Manure removal daily to help keep your pasture healthy and avoid areas of unpalatable grazing (and for worm control!)
  • Look out for cheating! Some horses and ponies will lean over or poke their head under the fence to eat more than their daily allowance – consider trying higher fence posts and/ or adding a lower strand of electric tape
  • Strip grazed paddocks will need time to recover and may require additional pasture management
  • Avoid over-grazing to reduce the risk of sand colic and pasture damage

Hay soaking

Soaking helps to reduce the water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) or ‘sugar’ content and of course, less sugar means fewer calories! However, results are highly variable which means soaking cannot guarantee suitability for laminitis.

Hay soaking tips

  • Always use fresh water
  • As a guide, soak for 1-3 hours in warm weather and 6-12 hours in cold weather
  • Unless feeding ad lib, increase the amount of hay you soak by approximately 20% to compensate for the loss of dry matter
  • If your horse is prone to laminitis, ideally have your hay analyzed (by wet chemistry) and use soaking as a back-up

Soaking vs steaming

Soaking your hay is by far the superior option if you are concerned about respiratory health, but it has little effect on WSC levels. Although not a practical solution for many owners, soaking followed by steaming (in a commercial steamer) helps to achieve the best of both worlds if you are trying to reduce the level of ‘sugar’ in your hay and improve hygienic quality. Did you know straw can be steamed before feeding to improve the hygienic quality?

Feeding mature hay

Provided they do not have any dental issues, replacing up to 30-50% of the forage ration with mature, lower quality forage can be useful way of reducing calorie intake for some easy keepers. Any lower quality, mature forage fed to horses should be of good hygienic quality and introduced gradually.

Extending eating time

Avoiding long periods without forage helps to support digestive health and mental well-being so consider ways of helping to make restricted rations last longer including:

  • Dividing forage into as many smaller servings as possible
  • Dividing forage between multiple, double-layered, small-holed haylage nets
  • Using ‘slow feeders’

Monitoring is essential!

The most suitable and effective ways of managing forage intake will depend on your individual horse and your pasture environment. Monitoring your individual horses closely, including changes in weight, body condition score, behavior and herd dynamics is key to assessing whether changes in diet or management may be necessary – every horse is an individual!

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