Hay Cubes as Alternative Forage Source

Imagine you're standing in the loft of your barn, lamenting the dwindling supply of hay. Snow and ice storms have made the trek to the regional hay sale nearly impossible. On the first clear sale day, you hook the fifth wheel to the truck and head off to the auction, hoping to bag a load of good-quality forage. When you arrive, however, there's no decent hay available. Hundreds of bales are stacked on rickety wagons; the bales are off-colored, some variation of yellow or brown, and dust flies from them when the twine is snipped and the hay shook out. Some of the bales smell suspicious--musty and moldy. What's a concerned horse owner to do?

If reputable hay dealers are not to be found in your area, there are alternatives to this classic forage form. According to Kentucky Equine Research nutritionist Kathleen Crandell, PhD, hay cubes are an option.

"The most popular types of forage cubes are made from coarsely chopped alfalfa hay, timothy hay, alfalfa/grass hay, whole corn plants, and alfalfa hay/whole corn plants," said Crandell. Horsemen derive numerous benefits by choosing hay cubes over more traditional long-stem hay.

Uniform Nutrient Profile: Little variation occurs from one load of forage cubes to another, especially when they are from the same manufacturer. Most cubes are made to certain specifications and offered to the consumer with established nutrient values. Generally, manufacturers must provide guaranteed levels of protein, fat, and fiber.

Less Forage Waste: Horses generally clean up hay cubes more readily than they do conventional hay. Because of their incredibly mobile lips, horses can easily separate the tender, palatable leaves from the coarse stems in conventional hay. The stems are sometimes deemed undesirable by horses and are frequently left behind. Feeding studies reveal that as much as 20% of conventional baled hay may be wasted when fed. Feeding hay cubes in a container bucket also keeps them from becoming trampled and unpalatable, though horses are likely to retrieve spilled cubes off the ground.

Portion Control: When feeding cubes, it is easier to control the amount of forage the horse consumes. An axiom involving feeding goes something like this: horses should be fed by weight and not volume. Forage cubes make adhering to this creed more manageable because the weight of cubes is more consistent than the weight of traditional hay. A bucket of cubes one day will likely weigh nearly the same day to day. On the contrary, four flakes of hay may weigh significantly more or less from one day to the next. Weight of traditional hay depends on a variety of factors: size of flakes, density of flakes (is the hay packed tightly or loosely into bales), and type of hay (legumes tend to be heavier than grasses).

Less Dust: Hay cubes contain little dust, so they represent a healthy dietary choice for horses with respiratory problems, such as heaves or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, that are triggered and aggravated by dust.

Ease of Storage: Forage cubes are denser than traditional baled hay. A 50-pound bag of hay cubes takes up far less space than a 50-pound bale of hay. Approximately three bags of hay cubes fit in the area of an average-sized, square bale of hay. Therefore, forage cubes are ideal for owners with limited forage storage space.

Will Travel: Because they are condensed, hay cubes are easier to take on the road. Horse owners can pack more of them in less space when traveling.

Chewable: Horses grind long-stem hay with the teeth in the back of their mouths, called cheek teeth or molars. Horses sometimes have misalignment of their molars, which precludes them from properly masticating stemmy forages. Hay cubes are easier for these horses to chew. Relatively few disadvantages turn up when hay cubes are fed.

Of course, there are some cautions that should be taken when feeding hay cubes as well.

Speed of Intake: Horses might finish a serving of hay cubes more quickly than an equal weight of traditional hay. Without as much "chew time" horses might become bored and look for other outlets in which to release pent-up energy or keep themselves busy.

Choke The incidence of choke or esophageal obstruction increases when cubes and pellets are fed. Often, however, choke has little to do with the feed form and is related more to the speed with which the feed is eaten.

Excessive Intake: Most horses cannot be given free choice access to cubes as they sometimes can with medium-quality long-stem hay. Research has shown that voluntary intake of alfalfa cubes was much greater than for the same alfalfa fed as long-stem hay. Controlled feeding ensures that horses do not become overweight or incur digestive problems such as colic.

Palatability: Most horses that refuse hay cubes do not have an issue with the taste but rather the texture. Some hay cubes are not designed to crumble easily. Horses must bite them with their incisors, the teeth in the front of their mouths, and then advance the pieces to the rear of their mouths, usually with their tongues. At first, some horses object to using their incisors for anything other than tearing pasture grass.

Cost: On a pound-for-pound basis, hay cubes are more expensive than traditional hay. Increased cost can be attributed to processing and expenses associated with shipping cubes from the point of production to the point of sale.

Hay cubes are appropriate for horses of all ages. Depending upon the plants from which the cubes are made, they are even suitable for broodmares and young horses because of their high nutrient values for energy, protein, and calcium.

Article reprinted with the permission of copyright holder Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Visit www.ker.com for more horse health and nutrition information.
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