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Give the right forage to the right horse

Give the right forage to the right horse

Forage and forage is not the same thing. How well horses can digest forage depends on the forage’s cell wall content. Cell walls are composed of cellulose fibre, hemicellulose, pectins and cell wall protein. The cell wall can be more or less lignified and the later the stage of maturity of a plant the more lignified is the cell wall and the digestibility decreases. When digestibility decreases the nutritive value of the forage also decreases.


Should these two horses have the same forage?

Table 1 show the results from an Icelandic digestibility study where four adjacent leys, seeded and fertilized in the same way, were harvested at four different stages of maturity. The results demonstrate how digestibility of dry matter (DM), the fibre fractions NDF and ADF and crude protein in haylage decreases the later the forage is harvested. This means that the nutritive value of the haylages also decreases; the content of metabolizable energy and digestible protein becomes lower.

To return to our two horses, of course they don’t have the same energy requirements. The high performing athlete has a high energy requirement and needs a forage of high energy density. The little pony which in this case doesn’t perform any hard work has a much lower energy requirement. Besides meeting the horses’ nutritive requirements we also have to consider the horses’ need for occupation and the horses’ gut health. The absolute minimum allowance of coarse fodder is 1.5 kg DM/100 kg body weight and day, if you have to restrict the allowance of coarse fodder/forage 2.0 – 2.5 kg DM/100 kg body weight and day is appropriate, but free access to forage of suitable quality works well for many horses.

Feeding our high performing athlete with early harvested forage it can cover all or most of the energy and protein requirements. Then no or only little supplementing will be necessary which is beneficial for gut health and performance, and a lot of forage and no/less concentrate has a big impact for the horses’ mental health and prevents behavioural disorders.

However the little pony needs forage of lower energy density, e.g. later harvest. Early harvested forage quickly covers the daily energy requirement and it will be difficult to reach a sufficient amount of kg DM per day. This means less occupation and risk for behavioural disorders. Therefore later harvested forage is more suitable for horses performing light work, or no work at all, and has a lower energy requirement.

Don’t forget that it is almost always necessary to supplement with minerals and salt. Have the forage analyzed for major minerals and trace elements.

Supplementing forage with forage can be useful in stables where you have horses with different energy and protein requirements or for example when you want to increase the forage ration but keep the energy intake down. Read about how you do it here.

Sara Muhonen, AgrD

Ragnarsson S & Lindberg JE 2008. Nutritional value of timothy haylage in Icelandic horses. Livestock Science 113, 202-208.

Jansson A, Lindberg JE, Rundgren M, Müller C, Connysson M, Kjellberg L & Lundberg M. 2011. Utfodringsrekommendationer för häst. Inst. för Husdjurens Utfodring och Vård, SLU. (In Swedish)

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