Written for Yeoman Haylage by TopSpec's Senior Nutritionist Louise Jones
Why does my horse need forage?
A horse’s diet should always be based on forage, whether fresh (i.e. grass) or preserved (i.e. haylage or hay). Your horse needs a high forage diet for a number of different reasons including:
- The provision of nutrients: Many people think that feeding preserved forage is just a way of providing bulk when grass intake is limited. However, forage is actually a major source of nutrition for your horse; providing calories, fibre, protein and some vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Therefore it’s important that you select your forage carefully; matching it to your horse’s requirements.
- Occupational therapy: Horses often develop stereotypical behaviours such as cribbing when forage intake is limited. Horses are trickle-feeders and their brains are hard-wired to want to chew for 16-18hrs a day. If we feed too little forage then the horse will seek out something else to chew on, this can be bedding or the top of their stable door!
- Supporting production of B-vitamins: B-vitamins play a vital role in metabolism and appetite stimulation. Your horse, with help from beneficial bacteria in his hind-gut, can often synthesise his own B-vitamins. However, this home-made process relies on your horse receiving an adequate supply of forage.
- Minimising the risk of gastric ulcers: Forage plays an essential role in maintaining the health of your horse’s stomach. Eating forage requires more chewing time and results in more saliva production compared to hard feed. This is important as saliva contains bicarbonate ions, which buffer stomach acid and help to reduce the risk of painful gastric ulcers.
- Maintenance of a healthy hind-gut environment: The all-important micro-organisms (mainly bacteria) in the hind-gut ideally need a constant supply of fibre to digest, resulting in a consistent fermentation pattern. This consistency means that your horse is much less likely to suffer from the many problems that can result from an upset in the microbial balance e.g. colic.
How does the horse utilise forage?
Horses are herbivores and as such their digestive systems are designed to process forages and other feeds that contain fibre. The equine hind-gut is a huge fermentation vat that is populated by micro-organisms including beneficial bacteria, which digest fibre. The end-products of this process are absorbed into your horse's bloodstream and taken to the cells where they constantly provide ‘Non-Heating’ energy.
The micro-organisms in your horse's hind-gut are very sensitive. When horses are fed a low forage, high cereal diet undigested starch can end up in the hind-gut. This disrupts the delicate population of micro-organisms causing acidosis (the accumulation of lactate). As a result the gut becomes too acidic for the beneficial fibre-degrading bacteria to flourish and they die. This can lead to serious, sometimes life threatening, disorders such as colic and laminitis.
To make the most of the forage that your horse eats it is important that he digests it efficiently. Efficient digestion means that your horse utilises as many nutrients as possible from his forage, which reduces the amount of hard feed he will need. The first step to take when trying to improve a horse's forage-to-concentrate ratio is to feed high quality forage (e.g. haylage) and a top-specification feed balancer e.g. TopSpec Comprehensive Feed Balancer.
How much forage does my horse need?
The amount of forage your horse needs depends on the nutritional value of the forage fed and his condition. However nutrition aside, forage can also provide occupational therapy for your horse, keeping him chewing and stopping him getting bored; therefore it is important to remember that forage has several roles in our horse's life and ideally you should maximise the amount of fibre your horse eats daily.
Most horses will need at least 2% of bodyweight as forage per day this includes grass, haylage and chops such as TopChop Alfalfa. In certain circumstances forage intake may need to be restricted, for example a horse that needs to lose weight may receive as little as 1-1.5% of their bodyweight as forage daily. However, it is very important that you speak to your Vet and Nutritionist before restricting your horse's forage intake. Severe forage restriction can result in hyperlipidemia, a condition in which the body goes into starvation mode rereleasing large quantities of stored lipids into the bloodstream. Hyperlipidemia is a serious condition that is often life-threatening.
Why feed haylage?
Yeoman Haylage is specially produced for horses and these days haylage is replacing hay as the most common forage fed to horses. Yeoman Haylage has a number of advantages over traditional hay including:
- Dust-free: Many experts believe that up to 90% of hay made in the UK is not of sufficient hygienic quality to be fed to horses. Feeding mouldy or dusty hay can increase the risk of respiratory problems such as Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO, formerly known as COPD). Yeoman Haylage contains lower levels of harmful dust and mould spores. This makes it an ideal forage for performance horses, where full lung capacity is essential for peak performance, and for horses prone to respiratory problems.
- Economical: Feeding lower priced forage can be a false economy as it tends to have a lower nutritional value. This means that higher levels of calories must be provided in the bucket feed, eliminating any savings made. In many cases horses fed haylage will only need to receive low levels of a suitable hard feed (e.g. a TopSpec balancer).
- Palatable: Horses tend to find haylage tastier than hay. This means that it is perfect for horses that can be fussy eaters and as there is usually less waste this helps you to save money.
- Easy to store: Yeoman Haylage is wrapped in small bales and therefore can be stored outside, perfect if you have limited storage space. Small bales of haylage are convenient and mess-free, perfect for taking on the lorry when you're competing away from home!
Can I feed only Haylage?
We believe our Haylage is the best product and provides an excellent alternative to grass, and is much better for horses than meadow hay. In some circumstances horses can need supplements, especially high-performance horses. What supplements your horse may need is up to you and your advisors, however here is some further information from TopSpec, a specialist horse feeds and supplements provider who we have worked with for many years:
Why may my horse need a hard feed?
Even the best quality forage will not provide your horse with a fully balanced diet. Indeed, a horse fed solely forage will not receive adequate levels of several essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements including sodium, copper, zinc and selenium to name but a few. To keep your horse healthy and performing well it is therefore essential that you provide them with additional dietary vitamins and minerals. This can be achieved by using an appropriate TopSpec feed balancer or supplement.
Why feed a balancer?
Haylage is rapidly replacing hay as the most common forage fed to horses and its generally superior nutritional quality means that less hard feed needs to be fed to meet the energy requirements of the horse. As a consequence there is growing realisation amongst horse owners that feeding feed balancers suits the digestive systems of horses very well and has many resulting benefits, including:
- High levels of micronutrients: The micronutrients (amino acids, minerals and vitamins) in TopSpec feed balancers will balance the forage in a ration. Thus ensuring that your horse receives all the vital nutrients they need for health and well-being.
- Added yeast and MOS: The yeast products in TopSpec feed balancers help to maintain a healthy population of beneficial (cellulolytic) bacteria in the hind-gut. This improve the digestibility of fibre in the hind-gut, allowing the horse to gain more nutritional benefit from the forage part of the diet and thus reducing the requirement for extra hard feed. In addition, Mannan oligosaccharides (dried cell walls from yeast) will bond with undesirable (pathogenic) bacteria in the gut and escort them out in the faeces, leaving the beneficial bacteria free to multiply.
- Increased forage to concentrate ratios: TopSpec feed balancers are so nutrient dense you are feeding less concentrate feed, making room in the horse's digestive system for more forage, thus improving the forage to concentrate ratio.
- Lower levels of starch and cereals: There is now a good understanding amongst horse owners that large feeds of cereal based compounds do not suit the horses digestive system and can increase the risk of problems such as colic and gastric ulcers. Additionally, high cereal diets can contribute to excitable behaviour. To maximise digestive health and promote an even temperament all TopSpec feed balancers contain less than 10% starch and sugar.
- Flexible feeding: If more condition is required than a feed balancer alone will promote then you can add a high calorie chop (e.g. TopChop Alfalfa) and/ or a TopSpec blend (e.g. FibrePlus Cubes, Cool Condition Cubes or Performance Cubes) to your horses ration. TopSpec blends have been specifically formulated to be fed alongside TopSpec balancers and allows you to alter your horses calorie intake without changing their feed completely. This is important as research has shown that changes to the horses diet can significantly increase the risk of digestive disturbances including colic.
Want individually tailored feeding advice for your horse?
For practical, friendly advice on how best to feed your horse call the TopSpec multiple award winning nutritional helpline on 01845 565030 (8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Fri) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org