Transitioning to Alternative Forages: Use Caution

Hay is at a premium. Whether it is the result of weather conditions making forage scarce or prohibitively expensive, or if there's some other reason, there could come a time when horse owners need to consider alternative sources of forage. Equine nutritionists say that when this is necessary, you should change a horse's diet gradually to avoid stressing his digestive system.

Horse owners can turn to the conventional forage substitutes, including hay cubes, alfalfa pellets, sugar beet pulp, and haylage, or they can try total mixed rations (TMR). These products are cubes containing all of the horse's nutritional requirements, and they can be offered free choice. Forage-based TMR cubes could be a viable alternative for owners faced with inconsistent or nonexistent forage sources. Such feeds have been available for some time for other species, but they are relatively new for horses and aren't widely available.

Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, assistant professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, said that TMRs "are the wave of the future. It's complete, it's easy ... you don't feed anything else but salt and water."

And, she said, TMRs let horses eat for longer periods of time. "They want to chew on something, so you have to give them something to chew on--or they'll eat your barn," Ralston noted.

Regardless of what you select, there is one mandate--you must make a gradual switch to the new food.

Ralston said, "We recommend transitioning horses over to a new ration over the course of about a week, gradually decreasing the amount of hay and increasing the amount of cubes" or other alternate forage.

Giving a horse time to adjust is more than just an old-time horsekeeping tradition--Amy Gill, PhD, an independent nutrition consultant based in Lexington, Ky., explained that there needs to be adequate time for the microbial populations in the hindgut to adapt to the new form of fiber.

Horses need a minimum of 1% of their body weight per day in fiber in order to keep their hindgut functioning right and, thus, survive, Gill said, adding that more grain won't substitute for lacking fiber.

Ralston noted if the total amount of feed needs to be restricted because of a horse's tendency to gain weight, his daily ration should be spread out over four or five feedings.

Cindy McCall, MS, PhD, professor in the department of animal sciences at Auburn University, added, "If you're dealing with a fat horse, the thing to do is to cut out the part of his diet with the most calories. So cut back his grain."

About the Author

Karen Donley-Hayes

Karen Donley-Hayes started writing young, and had her first article published in a national horse magazine Horsewoman when she was a sophomore in high school. Since then, she has continued to combine her love of horses and writing. Karen has had an eclectic professional life, spending time on horse farms, became a paramedic for several years, and worked as a legal writer, a technical communicator, and medical writer and editor. She completed her Master’s Degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus in bioethics, and is college editor for Hiram College, where she also teaches classes in medical and science writing. In her free time, she is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist, and remains active in the equestrian world. Hayes lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, a menagerie of cats, and one horse. More about Karen can be found on her website,

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