The Replacements: Alternative Forages and Feeds

Quality forage and grain alternatives can help owners manage horses better during drought and economic downturn.

Over the past several years, much of the United States has been under moderate to severe drought, especially in the south central and southeastern states. Due to the lack of rainfall, hay production has been less than normal, indicating a shortage of good-quality forage, and the price of what is available has been higher than in previous years. Another concern for horse owners recently is the current state of the economy. Horses are rarely inexpensive to maintain even in the best of times, and feeding them properly can be one of the largest expenses.

With this in mind, horse owners and managers should be aware of alternative sources of fiber and be prepared to make informed decisions when the need for these alternatives arises. Horse owners should also evaluate their current feeding plans and make educated decisions on how to best meet their horses' needs for the least amount of money.

It should be stressed that forage quality is of utmost importance for horses, and that forages appropriate for cattle and sheep might not be of a high enough quality for horses.

Forage Replacers

There are a variety of forage replacements available, and the best option will depend on a variety of issues, including the desired body condition for the horse, his physiological state, and the quality of forage alternatives accessible in the area. These replacers can help stretch hay supplies through the winter months, or they can help in summer months when grazing is limited. Some forage options available commercially are chopped hay or straw, hay cubes, and haylage.

Chopped hay and straw, also called "chaff," is common in the diets of horses in countries outside of the United States. It can be used to provide indigestible fiber to maintain proper functioning of the digestive tract. Another advantage is that it will provide horses with something to chew for a period of time, which is especially important since the average horse will spend between 14 and 20 hours a day grazing, if kept on pasture. One concern with this forage alternative is the nutrient content and quality, so be sure to read the feed tag carefully, and make sure the hay or straw used does not contain molds, mycotoxins, or endophytes that could be toxic to horses.

Chaff is also sometimes mixed with molasses to enhance palatability, which would not be recommended for horses with equine metabolic syndrome or horses that are prone to other metabolic conditions, such as laminitis.

Haylage is more commonly fed in European countries, although in recent years it has gained some popularity in the United States. Haylage is a form of chopped hay that is harvested and baled with a moisture content higher than traditional hay. It is sealed in plastic, allowing for some fermentation before being fed.

Advantages of haylage are that it is relatively dust-free because of its higher moisture content, and it is also slightly higher in nutritive value. The biggest concern with haylage is the development of mold and mycotoxins if it is not stored properly. It will mold quickly--usually within four days--once the package is opened and the forage is exposed to air.

Good-quality haylage has a clean, sweet to slightly acidic odor, a uniform green to brown color, and is moist to the touch. You should never feed haylage that is dark brown, mushy, slimy, or has black patches or obvious mold.

Complete any transition from traditional hay to haylage slowly. Because of its higher moisture content, you need to feed approximately 1.5 times as much haylage (by weight) as you would hay. It is also possible that you will need to feed less grain to meet the dietary requirements of a horse because of the higher nutrient content.

You can use other byproducts if they're available in the region, including soybean hulls, sunflower seed hulls, almond hulls, and citrus pulp. The amount to feed depends on the type of byproduct, and this could mean completely replacing the forage portion of the diet to only having to replace 10-25% of the total ration.

Soybean hulls are high in fiber and are one of the most digestible hull types. They can be used to replace about 50% of the forage. They are rather lightweight and tend to blow away if not either pelleted or mixed with a binder, such as molasses. Oat, cottonseed, peanut, and sunflower hulls, as well as wheat mids, can be used to replace from half to all of the forage portion of a mature horse's diet. Hulls are usually a safe and low-cost forage alternative, and they help relieve boredom and other stereotypies by satisfying the appetite and occupying the horse's attention. The biggest drawback to feeding hulls is they are usually dusty and have very low vitamin content. Rice hulls are not recommended for horses because of their sharp edges.

Citrus pulp and other fruit pulps, such as apple and grape, can replace 10-25% of the daily ration. The nutrient quality varies, depending on how they are processed. It is best if they are dried or ensiled (stored in a silo) before feeding.

Beet pulp is one of the most commonly fed grain alternatives, and it is very palatable. The digestible energy and fiber content generally falls between grains and hays, the protein content is similar to a good-quality grass hay, and it is relatively high in calcium. Beet pulp is usually soaked for eight to 12 hours prior to feeding, and it can swell three to four times its original size. You can feed it to meet either part or all of the forage content of the diet, but you should limit it to 10 pounds, on a dry weight basis.

Beet pulp is an excellent choice for horses that need a low-dust feed, and for horses that are considered hard keepers. You can also feed it to horses that have dental problems, and to horses recovering from surgery. Some vitamin and mineral supplementation will be necessary if you feed it in high amounts because it is low in phosphorous and vitamins A, B, and D.

Corn cobs and straw can provide some "bulk" to the diets of horses and satisfy the need to chew, but you should limit these to less than 10% of the total daily intake. There are also concerns about the very low nutritional quality of these products, and the potential for them to contain molds or mycotoxins. If fed in large amounts, they might increase the incidence of impaction colic. Owners using these fiber sources should check all bales for signs of mold and, perhaps, have them tested for mycotoxins before feeding.

Distiller's grains, the byproducts of corn and other grain processing, can have a relatively high protein content, up to 30%. They also tend to have a higher energy content than traditional grains and more phosphorous than calcium. Distiller's grains have been fed at levels of 10-15% of the total diet, by weight, without negative effects on intake or palatability. Only dried distiller's products are recommended for horses, because wet products have a tendency to mold. Another concern with corn distiller's products is the possibility that the corn might contain mycotoxins. Corn grain that is processed for ethanol is not tested for mycotoxins, and the processing does not remove them. Therefore, the mycotoxins will be in the byproducts.

Pasture and Hay

There has been recent interest in finding other forages that can be grown for pasture and hay, especially forages that can withstand heat and drought and still produce a high-quality crop. Teff (Eragrostis tef), also known as summer lovegrass, has become more popular in the last few years. There is also renewed interest in native grasses for summer grazing.

Teff is a warm season annual grass that is native to Ethiopia, where it is grown as a low-gluten grain crop. It was first grown in the northwestern states of the United States. It is very sensitive to frost, so it cannot be planted until mid- to late May in most regions. It is best planted on a firm seedbed, and it requires moist soil for germination. Because of its shallow root system, it is not recommended for grazing. However, it can make an excellent hay, with a protein content between 12-16% if cut in the late vegetative or pre-boot stage. Because it is very leafy and has a fine stem, it cures quickly, and it is less prone to mold than some other grass hays. Although it's usually very palatable, some horses might not initially consume this new forage readily.

Native grasses, especially warm-season perennial grasses, can be used to extend the grazing time in summer pastures. The advantage to including native grasses in a pasture plan is they are well-adapted to the soils and environment of the region. In Kentucky, and into the Midwest, common native warm-season species include eastern gamagrass, switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, and bahiagrass. These pasture species will complement the more traditional cool-season grasses, which tend to go dormant in the hot, dry summer months.

One of the concerns with these grasses is they have different establishment requirements than the cool-season grasses, so it is important to get information on managing these grasses from extension and industry publications, as well as from others who have had success in establishing them. Once established, they can make excellent grazing for horses and can handle intensive and rotational grazing. If pastures of nothing but warm-season grasses are established, they need to grow to a minimum of 4 to 8 inches in the spring before they are grazed for the first time. Horses will need to come off these pastures in early September to allow the plants time to prepare for the winter dormancy period.

Take-Home Message

Make sure you are buying the best- quality forage or forage replacer you can afford. Ask the dealer if the feed has been analyzed for nutrient content or pay to have it analyzed. Equi-analytical ( offers forage analysis for between $17 and $50. When reviewing the results keep in mind that carbohydrate levels are of concern for horses prone to laminitis or equine metabolic syndrome.

To maintain proper digestive health, roughages must make up a minimum of 50% of a horse's diet on a dry weight basis, or about 1 pound per 100 pounds of body weight. Make changes to the horse's diet gradually over a two-week period. Feed horses on the lower-fiber alternatives more frequently (four times a day) to satisfy the urge to graze, and introduce toys to help alleviate boredom.

Additional information is available at the Web sites of several land grant universities and from extension educators, equine nutritionists, and veterinarians. Before making any significant changes owners should consult with their local equine nutritionist, veterinarian, or feed dealer for advice and recommendations.


  • Coleman, R.J.; Lawrence, L.M.; and Henning, J.C. Alfalfa Cubes for Horses. University of Kentucky Extension Publication no. ID-145.
  • Holin, F. 2009. Tracking Teff. Retrieved from:
  • Kruss, K. Alternative Feeds for Horses. South Dakota State University Extension Publication no. ExEx 2039.
  • Ralston, S.L. Forage Substitutes for Horses. Rutgers University Extension Publication no. FS 073.
  • Smith, S.R., Lacefield, G.; and Keene, T. Native Warm-Season Perennial Grasses for Forage in Kentucky. University of Kentucky Extension Publication no. AGR-145.
  • Warren, L.K., and Siciliano, T. Stretching Your Horse's Hay Supply During Drought. Colorado State University Extension Publication no. 1.625. (
  • Zenk, P. 2008. Adaptable and Appealing: Summer annual teff makes great horse hay. Retrieved from:

About the Author

Janice L. Holland, PhD, PAS

Janice L. Holland, PhD, PAS is an associate professor of Equine Studies at Midway College in Midway, KY. Her main academic interests are equine nutrition, pasture management, and behavior.

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