Feeding in Drought Conditions

As pastures thin and dry up, owners must start supplementing their horses' diets with more hay.

Photo: Thinkstock

 Prepare for drought long before pastures wither and hay supplies dwindle.

The thought of drought conditions can be enough to make a farm owner’s heart skip a beat and hand clutch his or her wallet. And for good reason: When pastures dry up and hay stores dwindle, the remaining options for feeding horses can become costly.

The good thing (if there is one) about droughts is that they don’t happen overnight. “It’s not that your pastures are green one day and then brown as a biscuit the next,” says Tom Keene, Agronomy Specialist with the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.

You have time to adjust to these conditions, as do your horses. As pastures get thinner, owners should start supplementing each animal’s daily diet with more hay, Keene says. This helps the gut gradually adapt to the loss of fresh grass and accommodate the addition of dry hay.

But even before pastures start to wither and hay supplies peter out, it’s important that you make the necessary feed arrangements to get your horses through a potential dry spell.

“The adjustment that needs to be made in this situation is simply identifying and procuring quality hay in the face of a drought,” says Jason L. Turner, PhD, professor and cooperative extension service (CES) horse specialist with New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces. With impending or ongoing droughts, he says, “most responsible horse owners budget for and purchase high-quality forage, the foundation of a good feeding program.”

Finding Horse-Quality Hay

Horse hay should be clean and mold-, dust-, and foreign material-free. Anything from a nice leafy alfalfa-grass mix to a clean orchardgrass will fit the bill across several horse categories.

If possible, buy hay by the ton, not the bale, so you know what you are getting for the price, says Keene. Otherwise there is no way to guarantee one bale will weigh the same as the next. If buying round bales, he says, look for those stored inside that were baled when the moisture content was low so the hay did not mold. You also might want to ask if the producer performed a chemical analysis for protein, energy, and fiber content. If your only option is to buy bales that have been stored outside in the elements, inspect them very carefully before purchase.

Horse owners looking for hay can contact their local CES agent (csrees.usda.gov/Extension) for sources or refer to the National Hay Association’s website (Nationalhay.org).

Consider Forage Alternatives

Horse owners encounter problems, Turner says, when livestock industry demands drive up hay prices or when hay demand far exceeds supply like it did during the 2011 nationwide drought.

In those instances, he says horse owners need to look for realistic forage substitutes such as beet pulp, alfalfa cubes or pellets, pelleted soybean hulls, and distillers’ dried grains. But again, horse owners need to remember that drought increases the demand for those byproducts as well.

If owners plan to use alternative feedstuffs, they need to compare them on an “apples-to-apples” basis in terms of cost per unit of nutrient—calories, grams of protein, etc.—says Turner.

Also remember that while there are many ways to feed horses, “making sure they have enough fiber in their diet is important for gastrointestinal health,” says Laurie Lawrence, PhD, professor of equine nutrition at the University of Kentucky. “If baled hay is not available then hay cubes would be my next choice. Then hay pellets.”

She explains that the difference between hay cubes and hay pellets is particle size. Cubes have a larger particle size and require more chewing (which produces more stomach acid-reducing saliva and slows down eating time). 

“Some commercial feed companies make feeds that are truly ‘complete,’ meaning that they can be fed without hay,” she continues. “Usually these feeds contain some hay fiber as well as other fiber sources like beet pulp or soyhulls (horses are more likely to consume these in a mix than when offered separately). The commercial feeds are usually balanced with other nutrients, formulated for specific types of horses, and (the manufacturers) give feeding guidelines.”

Check Nutritional Profiles

Turner suggests that owners who use alternative feeds do a bit of research into the feedstuff’s nutritional profile and amount they feed to determine if their horses also need supplements. 

“Beet pulp, for instance, is often used as a replacement for some of the long-stem hay in a horse’s diet,” says Turner. “But it is high in calcium, which needs to be considered and adjusted for in the horse’s overall diet. Wheat bran has long been used in equine diets, but the high level of phosphorus it contains was a contributor to ‘big head disease’ in work horses that used to be fed diets high in wheat bran.”

Other byproduct feeds might present similar nutrient imbalances that you need to account for in the final formulation of the horse’s daily ration, he says, so be sure to work with your veterinarian or a nutritionist to sort out these issues. 

In addition, these professionals advise owners to always provide pastured or hayed horses free-choice access to salt and trace mineral blocks to help the animals meet their vitamin/mineral requirements.

Beet pulp (pictured), soybean hulls, and alfalfa cubes are a few forage replacement options for when hay supplies dwindle.

Photo: Erica Larson

Manage Your Pastures 

A good pasture is the cheapest feed you can provide for a horse. So how can you get the most out of it, even in a drought?

“Good rotational grazing systems, weed control, and appropriate fertilization before a drought starts could help pastures fare better during times of drought,” says Kylee Jo Duberstein, PhD, assistant professor of equine science at the University of Georgia, in Athens. “However, these management techniques are not practiced by a majority of horse owners. Most horse owners have too little pasture to begin with. They often exceed stocking recommendations for acreage required per animal for adequate grazing, which is two to three acres of grazing land per animal.”

If you’re among these owners that have access to less than one to two acres of land per horse, you need to ramp up your pasture management to prevent overgrazing. Turner suggests contacting a local CES agent for input. 

On this front, Keene recommends rotating turnout strategically: “I would allow horses in an appropriately sized pasture to graze for about a week to 10 days before moving to another pasture, ideally resting each individual pasture for a month at a time.”

During a 2010 drought in Kentucky, many horses in overstocked pastures grazed their fields to the ground. With the soil exposed, pastures were left open to weed seed germination and were in poor condition going into winter. Overgrazing such as this can cause plants to dry up or go dormant while other potentially toxic plants accumulate, says Lawrence.  

“Certainly one concern during drought is that weeds with deep tap roots may prosper longer than grasses with a relatively shallow root system,” says Lawrence. “Under these conditions, horses may be more likely to eat weeds or toxic plants they would normally avoid because they are hungry. It’s important to provide enough pasture substitute such as hay or hay cubes to discourage the horses from eating something they shouldn’t.” 

Common milkweed, hemp dogbane, hoary alyssum, and buttercup are among these weeds that can proliferate and become a toxic summer snack. So if heat is hurting your cool-season grasses but the region is not yet experiencing a full-blown drought, you might plant an emergency crop such as crabgrass or pearl millet, says Keene, to decrease the likelihood of toxic weed growth. He says crabgrass, perhaps surprisingly to those who maintain enviable lawns, can be very palatable and fairly nutritious as well.

How a drought affects pastures depends on its timing. One that hits in June, July, or August, for instance, will cause havoc in grazed-down pastures, but September and October rains will allow them to recover. Pastures that experience late-summer drought, on the other hand, might not see moisture until the end of November, says Keene, leaving them very thin and open to weed infestation. 

Be proactive in monitoring your forage stand’s condition, says Turner. Limit grazing intensity before it overwhelms the stand and severely diminishes the pasture’s health and future production. Mowing at a height of 5 or 6 inches—not for aesthetic reasons but to control weeds and seed heads—also is important for keeping pastures in good condition. 

Making Tough Decisions

Some droughts can last for years. You might eventually realize that you can’t afford to properly care for your horses any longer in your locale. You might consider moving somewhere more amenable to horse-keeping, find other arrangements for housing your horses, or it might be time to make tough yet responsible decisions. In the absolute worst-case scenario—say your horse’s health is also failing—you might have to euthanize him. 

Work with a veterinarian and nutritionist well in advance of drought conditions to plan the best strategy for your farm.

About the Author

Maureen Blaney Flietner

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