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Is Forage All a Horse Needs?

Pasture or hay is all a horse needs! Or is it?

This is something I often hear… and 99% of the time it is WRONG!

Forages are (almost) always too low in trace minerals to meet a horse’s requirements and leaving them unsupplemented on forage only diets usually results in problems with their hooves, joints, immune system, muscles … everything really!

They may look OK, but there is usually a bunch of stuff going on inside that you can’t see until a deficiency is quite pronounced.

BUT, there are always exceptions to the rule and I have just seen one. As a consulting nutritionist I end up looking at lots (numbering now 1000+) of forage analyses and I have just looked at a pasture from New Zealand that is able to meet all trace mineral requirements without any additional supplementation.

Even for selenium, which is something we don’t expect in New Zealand!

Sodium is a bit low (nothing unusual there) and iodine was not tested, but the fact is it is actually a pasture that horses would do OK on without extra supplementation. Just need a bit of iodised salt!

The horses on this pasture were being fed a selenium-containing balancer pellet and recently tested with blood selenium levels just in the high range (nothing scary, just high). It had us a bit baffled but looking now at the pasture results it makes sense.

The lesson in this, forage analysis is a wonderful tool when assessing your horse’s diet and FeedXL makes it so super easy to really see what forage is providing and what you need to add, which in this case is very little.

If you’d like to have your forage tested, we love to recommend Equi-Analytical.

Not yet a FeedXL member? Click here to get started!

Questions? Comments?

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Don’t Forget the Milk!

If you are looking at your foal’s diet in FeedXL it is crucial you include mum’s milk. It is a goldmine of nutrients for your foal and must be taken into account. Forget the milk and you will end up overfeeding, which will then cause problems with growth that is too fast.

OK you say, I will include the milk, but how? I know right, it’s a bit tricky because the foal just drinks it and you have no way of measuring how much he drinks. But lucky for you, your mare produces a reasonably consistent amount of milk for her foal, so depending on the age of the foal, you can calculate how much milk he is probably drinking. It won’t be perfect, but it is a lot better than not including it at all. 

Here at FeedXL we don’t recommend you balance a diet for a foal until he is at least 3 months of age. Up until this age, his mother’s milk and stores of minerals in the liver will fully meet requirements. So even though he will start to eat with his mother as early as a few days of age he doesn’t need this extra feed to meet his nutrient requirements.

After 3 months of age your foal will start to rely on nutrition outside of milk to meet his requirements, BUT milk still provides a lot of nutrition, so it must be included in his diet in FeedXL.

Here’s how to include milk in your FeedXL diets:

1. Calculate the amount of milk he is getting from his mother. At 3 months of age her milk production will be around 2.5% of her bodyweight per day.

To calculate 2.5% of her bodyweight:

2.5/100 = 0.025

0.025 x BW = amount of milk per day in kg or lb

So for a 500 kg (1100 lb) mare this would be:

0.025 x 500 kg = 12.5 kg per day
(or 0.025 x 1100 lb = 27.5 lb per day)

2. Create your foal in FeedXL with his correct date of birth and bodyweight. It is so important to get bodyweight correct! The only real way to do this is to weigh your foal (sorry, no easy tricks on this one).

3. Enter your foal’s pasture and/or hay, then add the milk at 2.5% of his mother’s bodyweight using the calculation above.

4. Check the diet to see what is missing and add a balancer pellet or feed to fill in the gaps. TIP: Use the supplement finder to find a product that will top up the required mineral and vitamin levels. 

The images below show a January born, 200 kg thoroughbred foal’s diet with:

Pasture Only – note the LARGE deficit in required digestible energy. If you tried to fill this entire gap with feed you would be feeding waayyyyyy too much and make your foal grow too fast! This is why you need to add the milk!

Pasture + Milk – note now the deficit in digestible energy has been filled by the wonderful milk, so he doesn’t actually need extra calories in the diet. But there remain many mineral deficits. This is what you need to top up.

 

Pasture + Milk + 600 grams of Balancer Pellet (that I found using the Supplement Finder) – and you are done, requirements met without exceeding digestible energy requirement! Note FeedXL may warn you that forage requirement is not met. For foals, you have my permission to politely ignore FeedXL on this one as long as he has constant access to pasture and/or hay!

It is so super important to remember the milk! If you don’t, you run the risk of overfeeding your foal and that will almost certainly cause you to run into issues with developmental disease in the bones and joints.

If you are balancing a diet for your foal with FeedXL and are having trouble getting it right, be sure to pop over to our Facebook Nutrition Forum and ask for help. We are here and we want to help you!

Questions? Comments?

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How to Make Sense of Pasture Analysis Results

Have you ever got the results back from a pasture or hay analysis and been left scratching your head trying to figure out what the numbers mean? Frustrating isn’t it!?

That is unless you have a tool (like FeedXL) to interpret the numbers for you.

Let me show you what I (Nerida) mean. The analysis below shows the analysis result numbers for the bottom pasture at our place, but they are kind of meaningless unless we look at them in terms of how much of that pasture a horse eats and how much nutrient is provided compared to the amount of nutrient the horse actually needs.

Take phosphorus for example, the pasture contains 1.45 g/kg of phosphorus, which is only enough to meet 39% of a late pregnant (month 11) mare’s requirement if she was given full time access to this pasture.

Our pasture is native pasture and our soils are low in phosphorus so the pasture is lower in phosphorus than most pastures. BUT, point is 1.45 g/kg of phosphorus was only a number until we put it in terms of what our late pregnant mare needs each day to meet her requirement (note to my husband, we don’t have a late pregnant mare, this is just an example, in case you are panicking right now! No promises for the future though, it’s all part of my professional development right! )

You will also see from the diet readout from FeedXL below that the pasture only diet (bar graph with the green and red bars) is not meeting requirements for multiple other nutrients for this late pregnant mare, which also would have been difficult to determine just from reading the analysis numbers alone.

 

So with FeedXL we can see what is not in your pasture that your horse needs. You can then also add other feed ingredients to the diet to meet those requirements.

The second bar graph with the green and blue bars shows a diet I would use for a late pregnant mare on this pasture. The diet uses 2 kg of prime lucerne hay (shown in the darker green) and 3 kg of a commercial broodmare feed (shown in the blue). All requirements are now nicely met!

Pasture analysis made that bit more useful! Using FeedXL to assess your forage analysis also means you will only supplement with the nutrients you need to add, potentially saving yourself a lot of money by not adding unnecessary products and nutrients.

You can upload as many pasture and hay analyses as you like into your FeedXL account, just click the ‘Add my own forage’ link in the Create Forage section of the diet wizard, or directly from the Feeds list (see below). Click here to log in and give it a try!

 

QUESTIONS? COMMENTS?

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Grazing Muzzles

I personally love grazing muzzles. A muzzle means my horses can be out grazing 23+ hours per day. Without them they would be strip grazed (trashing my natives pastures in the process) or locked up for extended periods, which for gut and mental health is not ideal either.

But they come with their challenges. They can rub if they don’t fit properly. If you don’t have one your horse is OK with they can create behavioral issues (rearing while trying to put them on or being impossible to catch to put them on) and I find certain brands can be too hot to wear in hot climates.

And of course there is always that unknown of how long you should leave one on for your particular muzzle+horse+pasture combination (which if you are like me causes a bit of angst for a while until you get it figured out!).

The other thing you need to be really aware of is how they limit normal behavior. My horses love to groom one another, but with muzzles on all the time they can’t do this. So I have to consciously make time to let them have muzzle free time together so they can do some mutual grooming.

Just something to keep in mind for those of you with muzzled horses.

Questions? Comments?

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Iron for Horses: Could Forage Be Enough?

Comparison of equine dietary iron requirements to iron concentrations of 5,837 hay samples

N. Richards and B.D. Nielsen, 2018

Introduction

Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells. According to the 2007 Horse NRC, Fe requirements are 50 ppm for growing foals, lactating and pregnant mares, and 40 ppm for all other classes of horses. The 2005 NRC suggested a maximum tolerable Fe concentration of 500 ppm using data from other species. It is claimed that excess dietary Fe is causative of horses becoming insulin resistant.

Athletic horses, and particularly those in Thoroughbred racing, are often supplemented with Fe in an attempt to improve performance. Supplementation is commonly carried out without any formal analysis of the diet to determine if additional iron is required. Forages are typically high in iron and supply a majority of iron in all equine diets.

This study looks at the iron concentration in forages typically fed to equines and whether iron from forage is enough to meet the iron requirement of an athletic horse.

Methods

Nutrient concentrations from hay samples submitted for analysis in 2017 and for which Fe was measured were obtained from Equi-Analytical, representing 3,060 grass, 1,193 legume, and 1,584 mixed hay samples.

Iron concentration was measured using inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP). Analysis methodology is available from dairyone.com. Statistical analysis was performed using Proc MEANS of SAS.

Results

Iron was highest in Legume and Mixed Mainly Legume Hays and lowest in Grass Hay (Table 1). All hay types had a mean iron concentration more than five times that required by athletic horses and a median iron concentration more than three times.

From all hay samples (n = 5,837), 707 contained Fe at or above the suggested tolerable threshold of 500 ppm, while only 81 contained Fe at less than 50 ppm. Further, only 15 contained Fe at less than 40 ppm.

Discussion

A 500 kg horse in heavy work has an iron requirement of 500 mg/day (NRC 2007; based on a daily feed intake of 2.5% bodyweight and a requirement of 40 ppm). Forage intake is often restricted by Thoroughbred trainers. But even when fed at 1% of bodyweight to a 500 kg horse, these hays will supply an average 1,060 mg to 2,230 mg of iron per day, supplying more than 200% of daily iron requirements in the forage component of the diet alone.

Fortified grain concentrates are fed at an average 2.5 kg/horse per day in Australian Thoroughbred racing stables (Richards 2003). These concentrates have an average iron concentration of 190 ppm (FeedXL.com), adding an additional 475 mg/day of iron to the diet of these horses. Almost 60% of Australian Thoroughbred trainers then add an iron supplement to their horses’ diets (Richards 2003). It is expected similar trends would be found in the USA.

Based on this broad diet analysis, forage is able to meet the daily iron requirement of athletic horses. When iron from fortified feeds and supplements is added, there would be few racehorses receiving less than 300% of their daily iron requirement. It’s not unexpected that many horses would be receiving in excess of 500% of their daily iron requirement

What About Insulin Resistance

Given the dearth of Thoroughbred racehorses that are insulin resistant, despite Fe supplementation in combination with diets that can easily supply amounts beyond requirements, it seems unlikely excess Fe causes insulin resistance. However, it is recognized insulin resistant horses may have elevated serum ferritin.

References

Council NR. Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2007.

Richards N, Hinch G, Rowe J. The effect of current grain feeding practices on hindgut starch fermentation and acidosis in the Australian racing Thoroughbred. Aust Vet J 2006;84:402-407.

FeedXL Nutrition Software, https://feedxl.com/, 2018.

HUGE THANKS to Equi-Analytical for providing the data to write this paper, which was presented as a poster at the recent International Conference on Equine Exercise Physiology (ICEEP).

Questions? Comments?

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Setaria Grass and Bighead: What You Need to Know

Setaria should really be classified as toxic for horses. It is a subtropical pasture with such high levels of oxalate that it makes it almost impossible to prevent Secondary Nutritional Hyperparathyroidism (Bighead disease) in horses grazing this grass.

Grasses like kikuyu and buffel grass readily cause bighead disease with an oxalate content of around 15 g/kg. Setaria contains anywhere between 30 and 80 grams of oxalate per kg of (90% dry matter) pasture… which translates to HUGE amounts of calcium being needed to balance the calcium to oxalate ratio to prevent bighead.

I have seen horses go from normal to severely affected in a matter of months on setaria. So if you have setaria in your pasture you need to be very aware of what you are feeding and how well this is meeting calcium (as well as phosphorus and magnesium) requirements.

FeedXL will help you in calculating the calcium to oxalate, calcium to phosphorus and calcium to magnesium ratios to keep your horse healthy. BUT, the first step is identifying that you have this grass in the first place so you know you need to be on your game with managing nutrition!

I took the following photos of setaria on the NSW mid-north coast… setaria was everywhere! Please take a look at the photos and then in your paddocks to see if you have setaria. And if you do, please do something sooner than later to prevent severe and often life-threatening calcium deficiency.

There is more information on Bighead here too if you need it at https://feedxl.com/25-bighead/

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Teff Hay vs Rhodes Grass Hay

Teff Hay seems to have suddenly appeared as a hay option for many horse owners and because it is sold as a low starch low sugar hay it is starting to be recommended in place of Rhodes Grass Hay.

BUT, if you are lucky enough to have access to Rhodes Grass Hay, I wouldn’t be eager to swap. Here is why:

1. Rhodes Grass Hay is low in oxalate, containing approximately 2.5 to 3 g/kg of oxalate.

Teff Hay is moderate to high in oxalate at 10 to 12 g/kg. This means Teff needs careful supplementation of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium to prevent it from causing Bighead Disease. With Rhodes being so low in oxalate Bighead is not an issue (though you do still need to make sure you correctly balance the diet for minerals and vitamins as forages rarely contain enough to meet a horse’s requirement).

2. Rhodes Grass Hay is more reliable and consistent when it comes to the low starch, low sugar characteristic.

From the analyses we have seen coming through here at FeedXL Teff can be high in starch, with one analysis sent through showing an as-fed starch content of 7.1% and total NSC of of 13.7% which for a laminitic horse is going to be too high. While soaking would more than likely bring this non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) level back down to safe levels it makes for much more time consuming feeding… so if you have access to Rhodes Grass it would be much easier to use this.

3. Teff Hay causes some odd behavioural issues in some horses and this is normally associated with an alkaline fecal pH.

We have no way of explaining this, and it doesn’t happen with all horses on Teff so I don’t know if all Teff Hay is the same or if there is a certain variety that causes this issue.

So while Teff gives people in cooler climates a low NSC option which is welcome, it is not yet well understood and not without its issues. If I had a choice between Teff and Rhodes I would go with Rhodes Hay every time.

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Soft Manure in Horses on Fresh Lucerne/Alfalfa Hay? Try This!

Lucerne/Alfalfa… if it is really fresh and green it will often cause scouring/diarrhea. We don’t know (as far as I’m aware) what causes the scouring, BUT my observation over the years is that once it is stored for a few months the problem goes away (hence the old advice to always feed ‘shedded’ hay)… so whatever it is in lucerne/alfalfa that causes the issue seems to be volatile and disappears after a while.

The issue at the moment for many of us is hay is in such short supply that all we can get is very fresh lucerne! We don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of months for it to lose whatever it is that makes our horses scour… here is what you can do!

Take your bales, open them up and spread the pieces (biscuits, flakes, leaves… we call them all sorts of funny things depending on where you are in the world!) apart and let them sit for about a week (longer if you have the luxury of time) to air out. You should find that your horse’s gut will be much happier with it once it has had this chance to air out. If your hay seems particularly rich and is making horses scour badly try also sitting it in the sun.

I have dealt with lucerne/alfalfa in a polo stable in Asia actually bursting horses’ stomachs! 😮 was horrible!! But once we got them to start airing and sunning the hay like this (it was imported from the USA) the problem thankfully stopped. Its the only time I have heard of that with lucerne/alfalfa and hopefully the only time!

Anyway, if you are dealing with soft manure in horses on fresh lucerne/alfalfa give this a try. Would love to know what happens if you have time to leave a comment on Facebook.

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Is Grain Free/Low Sugar, Low Starch Always the Way to Go for Horses?

Feeding grain free diets has grown in popularity in the last 10 years and there are certainly many benefits. BUT, need it always be the way to go? The answer is, it depends, but often no.

Horses with conditions like laminitis, PSSM tying up, PPID/Cushing’s, equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance etc MUST be fed a low sugar, low starch (or low non-structural carbohydrate; NSC) diet. Usually, to achieve low enough starch and sugar levels, these diets need to be grain free. One of the things FeedXL is great for is to help you sort out which feeds, forages and supplements are safe (low in starch and sugars; NSC) or not safe to feed horses with these conditions.

But for horses that don’t need low sugar, low starch diets to control diseases, as long as grain is FED SAFELY, grains can form a very valuable part of a ration! They are economical compared to high energy fibres like beet pulp (which are expensive in comparison), they provide a source of glucose that horses in heavy work can use to readily replenish muscle glycogen supplies, and they are palatable… horses love grains, so keeping horses in hard work eating on grain based feeds tends to be relatively simple provided the recipe is good!

So, as long as grains are well cooked (with the exception of oats which can be fed uncooked) and as long as you feed them in small meals (no more than 0.5 kg/100 kg BW, 0.5 lb/100 lb BW) they can form a very useful part of a horse’s diet. These are HUGE ‘as long as’ statements too… feed grains in the wrong way and things WILL go horribly wrong. But that is another story for another day.

The moral of this story is don’t fall into the trap of one-size-fits-all when it comes to grain free. 

There is more info here on why we cook grains for those of you who would like the details: https://feedxl.com/18-feed-cooked-grains/

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The Link Between Regular Forage Meals and Gut Health

Poet and I (Nerida) headed out a few weeks ago to do some real work mustering sheep (not that we did anything useful, we were just along for the ride!). There were 5 of us on horses, saddled up by 6:30 am and in incredibly steep, rocky, tough (but stunning!) terrain for 6 hours. At various points we dismounted and slid (feet sideways) down parts of the mountainside because it was too steep to ride. Sheep were tripping and rolling down the hill (amusing! but gives you an idea of how steep it was!!).

Anyway, here is me, very conscious of gastric ulcers, giving my horse lucerne/alfalfa as I saddled up, letting him pick what grass we could find while out riding if we were stopped for any time so he at least salivated a little bit and immediately giving him water and more lucerne/alfalfa on return to where we had saddled up… meanwhile stifling my panic at watching the other horses eating nothing and trying not to think too much about what was going on in their stomachs.

I asked one of the guys, an experienced horseman, if he worried about ulcers, and it soon became clear that there was no understanding of how a horse’s stomach worked and the negative impact of not feeding them for such long (long!) periods of time (his horse had a couple of hours trip home).

I also asked recently at a seminar who could confidently sketch a horse’s gut or explain how it works and no-one was able to. And I get this… I had no idea what a horse’s gut looked like or how it worked the entire time I rode in my pre-nutritionist life!

The thing is, a horses stomach never stops secreting gastric acid. So even when your horse is not eating it is filling the lower part of its stomach up with acidic gastric juices. While the stomach is full this isn’t an issue as the dense matt of fibre in the gut will stop the acid from splashing around and burning the unprotected lining of the upper section of the stomach.

Problems start though when horses are off feed for long periods like this and end up with a pool of acid and an empty stomach. Combine that with the movement of being ridden and you get acid splashing up and quite literally burning holes (causing ulcers) in the top part of the stomach.

So here is my plea! Please help us to educate people on how a horse’s stomach works and what they can do (really simple things) to keep their horse’s stomach and therefore their horse healthy and pain free. Share this article on Avoiding Gastric Ulcers with them and have them understand that a horse’s stomach should never be empty and that as much as is practical you should never work a horse on an empty stomach.

Thank you!! From us and from all of the horses who will be so much better off when their owners understand how they work just a tiny bit better.