Changing Hay Sources for Horses

Changing Hay Sources for Horses

Hay's energy and nutrient content can vary drastically depending on a number of factors, so change forage sources over a two to three week period to help prevent gastrointestinal upset.

Photo: The Horse Staff

As a horse owner, I have moved quite a few horses around and recently moved my gelding to a new boarding facility, so thought this would be a good opportunity to share one aspect of my experience.

To help maintain as much consistency in his routine as possible, I made sure that I had two weeks’ worth of hay to take with me to help keep his diet consistent throughout the move and to allow for a gradual transition to the new hay.

When I told the barn managers at the new facility that I was bringing a few bales of hay over, they seemed a little surprised at this and told me not to worry about it, because they had high quality hay. I asked them if they would recommend a sudden change in a horse’s grain ration, and immediately they said of course not, due to colic risk. I replied, “Then why would you switch their hay cold turkey, when it makes up 60 to 70% of the horses diet?” and watched their expressions as they realized the point I was making.

As a result, along with keeping his grain ration and meal times consistent with the previous routine, a gradual transition from the previous hay to the new hay was done over a two week period. For the first couple of days he received his “old” hay only, and over time we incrementally replaced a small portion of his “old hay” with the “new hay” so that at two weeks post-move, he was completely switched over without any problems or decline in performance.

As horse owners, it is important to keep in mind that any sudden changes in diet, including fresh pasture and hay, can disrupt the environment in the gut where communities of microbes reside. Consequently, this disruption in the microbial population and digestive process can put the horse at risk for gastrointestinal upsets (such as excessive gas production, colic, diarrhea, and discomfort).

The energy and nutrient content in hay can vary drastically depending on the plant species, geography, soil conditions, plant maturity at harvest, climate conditions, baling and storage methods, and other factors. Even hay that comes out of the same field from consecutive cuttings can have large differences in quality and nutrient content that should be considered.

It takes approximately three weeks for the microbes in a horses gut to adapt to dietary changes, making gradual transitions over a two to three week period important to help prevent gastrointestinal upset.

When it isn’t possible to make a full two-week transition, allow for as much of a gradual transition as possible even if is only over two to three days. Additionally, providing dietary pre- and probiotics can also help support gut microbes through dietary changes, especially if they are rapid.

Reprinted with permission from The Feed Room, by Nutrena.

About the Author

Emily Lamprecht, PhD

Emily Lamprecht, PhD, earned her doctorate in Endocrinology and Animal Biosciences (with an emphasis on equine nutrition and exercise physiology) in 2009 from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She also holds bachelor’s degrees in Animal Science and Psychology from University of Missouri, Columbia (2003, 2004). She joined the Cargill Animal Nutrition Strategic Marketing and Technology team in August 2009 and currently serves in the role of Technology Lead for Consumer Nutrition. Her primary responsibilities include formulation, managing research and new product development for the equine and pet businesses within the United States and internationally, and providing technical support to Cargill businesses, veterinarians, feed dealers, consultants, and customers. Lamprecht is a professional member of the American Society of Animal Science and the Equine Science Society. In her spare time, Lamprecht can be found volunteering with the Minnesota Search and Rescue Dog Association and continues to be an active member of the equine community. She trains and shows her horse in the sport of dressage and enjoys spending time with her husband, trail riding, and hiking.

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