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Myth or Reality? "The high level of protein in alfalfa will damage my horse's kidneys!" Myth! Feeding programs based on alfalfa hay often provide protein in excess of a horse's requirement, particularly when large amounts of alfalfa are fed to mature horses at maintenance or light work. However, there is no evidence to suggest that a moderate dietary excess of protein is detrimental to healthy, mature horses. Protein is made up of amino acids which are composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. When horses (or humans!) consume more protein than they need, the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen portion of the amino acids is used for energy and the excess nitrogen is excreted in the urine. Thus it is possible that horses consuming high protein diets will drink more water and urinate more than horses consuming a lower protein diet, but there is no reason to believe that a horse's kidneys will be damaged when this occurs.
Question: "Can I feed alfalfa cubes instead of alfalfa hay?" Yes. Alfalfa cubes are an acceptable alternative to baled alfalfa hay. Voluntary consumption may be higher when alfalfa cubes are fed than when long hay is fed. There are two potential advantages of alfalfa cubes over baled hay. The first advantage relates to dust; hay cubes usually have less dust than long hay. The second advantage relates to waste; there may be less waste when hay cubes are fed. Currently, hay cubes are used more commonly in the Western U.S. than in other areas. However, even in the West, only about 10% of horse operations include hay cubes in their feeding program (NAHMS, 1998).
Myth or Reality? "Alfalfa is too rich for broodmares and young horses!" Myth! While alfalfa hay is a more nutrient-rich feed than most other hays, it is not any richer than many other feeds commonly used for horses. For example, the horse's most natural feedstuff, good quality pasture, is often higher in calories and protein than alfalfa hay! When horses graze rapidly growing cool season grass pasture in the spring and early summer in Kentucky, they are consuming food that contains 18 to 20% crude protein on a dry matter basis! By comparison, mid-maturity alfalfa hay will contain 16 to 18% crude protein on a dry matter basis. For horses that are relatively inactive, and are not growing or lactating, mid to late maturity alfalfa hay will be a more appropriate feed than early maturity alfalfa.
Myth or Reality? "Preservative-treated hay isn't safe!" Myth! A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that yearlings receiving hay treated with a mixture of acetic and propionic acid consumed just as much and gained just as much over a 1 month feeding period as yearlings consuming untreated hay. Clinical measures of well-being such as serum enzyme levels were not affected by consumption of preservative treated hay, indicating the hay had no negative effects on the horses. A study performed at Cornell University found that when given a choice, horses preferred alfalfa that was not treated with a preservative over alfalfa that had been treated with a mixture of acetic and propionic acid.
Myth or Reality? "A little mold won't hurt!" Myth! Beyond any doubt, the most important characteristic of good horse hay is cleanliness. Any hay (alfalfa, timothy, clover, fescue) that contains dust or mold will probably make a horse cough. Coughing is abnormal and not insignificant. Many horses develop permanent lung damage after consuming moldy or dusty hay. This chronic lung damage, commonly referred to as heaves, affects the horse's ability to breath normally and impairs their ability to exercise. Once a horse has been sensitized to hay dust, mold or pollen, it may react even when clean hay is fed. Moldy hay may also have other negative health effects as well. Therefore moldy hay should never be used for horses. In general, alfalfa is not any more likely to make a horse cough than any other hay, as long as it is dust and mold free.
Myth or Reality? "Hay that has been stored in the barn for a year or more has lost its nutrient value" Myth! As long as hay has been stored in a dry environment, it is suitable for feeding for a long time after harvest. The amounts of energy, protein, calcium and phosphorus in a bale of hay in dry storage are basically the same after 2 years of storage as they are after 2 months of storage. One nutrient that does change with storage is vitamin A. However the greatest loss of vitamin A activity occurs right after harvest, and the amount of change from 6 months to a year or more is relatively small. Long term storage may increase dryness of hay. Hay that is very dry will be brittle and sustain more leaf shatter, so wastage during feeding may go up. Hay that has been stored for a long time may also have an increased level of dustiness, probably due to the increased dryness.
Question:"Can large round bales of alfalfa be used for horses?" Yes and no. Large round bales that are stored in a barn can be used for horses. However, round bales should be used in situations where there will be enough horses consuming hay to use up the bale in few days. When a round bale is in a paddock with only one or two horses, it will be exposed to the elements for an extended period and mold formation is likely. Round bales that have been stored outside without cover usually have a large amount of spoilage and should not be used for horses. Round bales can be a convenient way to feed large groups of horses but the amount of hay wasted is probably higher with round bales than with conventional bales.
Lawrence, L.M. K.J. Moore, H.F. Hintz, E.H. Jaster and L. Wischover. 1987. Acceptability of alfalfa hay treated with an organic acid preservative for horses. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 67:217.
NAHMS. 1998. Part II. Baseline Reference of 1998 Equine Health and Management. National Animal Health Monitoring System, USDA:APHIS:VS, Ft Collins CO
NRC. 1989. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academy Press, Washington D.C.
Raymond, S.L., E.F. Curtis, L.M. Winfield and A.F. Clarke. 1997. A comparison of respirable particles associated with various forage products for horses. Equine Pract. 19:23.
Russell, M.A. and G.A. Rich. 1993. Selecting hay for horses. In, The Horse Industry Handbook, American Youth Horse Council, Lexington KY
Todd, L.K., W.C. Sauer, R.J. Chistopherson, R.J. Coleman and W.R. Caine. 1995. The effect of feeding different forms of alfalfa on nutrient digestibility and voluntary intake in horses. J. Anim. Physiol. (Anim. Nutr.) 73:1
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