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Feeding Your Horse Alfalfa

March 25, 2013

AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena explains the pros and cons of feeding your horse straight alfalfa hay versus a grass-alfalfa mix.

Ask an ExpertQuestion:

What are the pros and cons of feeding my two Quarter Horses straight alfalfa hay instead of a grass-alfalfa mix? Also, is it bad to feed the mix in one feeding and the alfalfa in the second daily feeding? I wonder if it’s too hard on the stomach to process the different hay. They are both hard-working horses, but their weight is good.

For the answer to this question, we consulted AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena.

Answer:

You have an excellent, and common, question. Straight alfalfa will provide more protein, more calcium and perhaps more calories per pound than an alfalfa-grass mix. The extra protein will be used for energy, although not very efficiently, and the excess nitrogen will be excreted by the horse, so urine output will be a little higher with a little more ammonia in the urine. Water intake will need to be a bit higher; horses must have access to adequate water so there is no risk of dehydration.

There has been some concern, particularly on the West Coast, that horses on straight alfalfa hay might be more prone to developing “stones” in their intestinal tract. There are a couple caveats to this: It has been documented fairly well that Thoroughbreds and Arabians are more prone to this than other breeds, and there is also some concern that it may have to do with the sandy ground that many of the West Coast horses eat off of; the sand can actually have implications in the development of stones as well.

Because alfalfa hay contains more calories per pound, you need to feed less to maintain the same body condition. It sounds like you are watching body condition and would adjust the feeding rate according to the body condition.

You can feed two types of hay to horses with a few precautions and moderation. I prefer to actually mix the hay at each feeding rather than feed one hay at one meal and a different hay at a different meal so that the horse does not have sudden changes. I would certainly not waste either hay, so mixing would be a good idea.

If you feed one hay for a long period, the microflora in the gut get accustomed to that hay. You should not switch abruptly, but can blend for four to seven days. Sudden drastic changes in complete portion of hay can be linked to an increased risk of colic.

*AQHA and the provider of this information are not liable for the inherent risks of equine activities. We always recommend consulting a qualified veterinarian and/or an AQHA Professional Horseman.