Use Caution When Bedding Horses on Fescue

Tight budgets have caused several Central Kentucky horse farm managers to reduce straw bedding costs by harvesting overmature grass pastures and using the resulting stemmy hay as bedding.

On the surface this practice might seem cost-efficient, but horse owners and farm managers should be cautious using this bedding for pregnant mares during their last trimester as it can significantly impact the mare's reproductive cycle if ingested. It is not uncommon for horses to eat some of their bedding, especially if it's hay (even overmature hay).

If the harvested fields contain significant amounts of tall fescue in the seedhead stage, then the bedding will likely contain toxic levels of ergovaline, a dopaminergic agonist (a drug that stimulates dopamine receptors). Tall fescue at the seedhead stage has the highest levels of toxins, often three to five times higher than fescue at the leafy stage. Additionally, these toxins (i.e., ergot alkaloids) will remain in hay as long as it is stored.

Ray Smith, MS, PhD, forage extension specialist in the University of Kentucky Plant and Soil Sciences department, provided this information.

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