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Meal Size: Why Should it Be Little and Often?

We have all been told ‘Little and often’ when it comes to feeding horses. But why?

Well, when you consider horses are ‘grazers’ and their gut has been designed to work best with small amounts being consumed constantly over long periods of the day and night (they eat for up to 17 hours a day, can you imagine having to do that!) it makes sense that they should be fed small meals frequently.

But let me give you a visual (in words) on why it is best to feed little and often… In the horse’s small intestine there are things called enzymes, which are like tiny pairs of scissors. An enzymes job is to cut big things like protein, starch and fats up into very small things like amino acids (the building blocks of protein), glucose the building block of starch) and fatty acids (a building block of fats).

Unless the enzymes chop protein, starch and fat up they will not get absorbed as they are far too big to cross the intestinal wall intact. So for absorption to occur, these little enzymes MUST chop the big stuff into little stuff!

Now, imagine I was to give you a pair of scissors and then held up a long piece of ribbon. If I walked past you very, very slowly holding this ribbon and said ‘chop the ribbon into small pieces’, you would have plenty of time to chop the ribbon multiple times into small pieces. This is what happens in the gut. If a piece of protein for example goes moving through the small intestine very very slowly, the little enzymes have plenty of time to chop it up into amino acids so it can be absorbed.

Now imagine if I held up another piece of ribbon, exactly the same as the first, but this time I RUN past you and tell you to chop it up… you might get one shot at it (I am not very fast!) before it is gone. And this is exactly what happens in the gut. If feed is moving too quickly through the gut the poor little enzymes simply don’t get enough time to chop anything up. Meaning it simply won’t be absorbed.

So back to meal size and the little and often concept… when you feed small meals, the feed will move nice and slowly through the gut and the enzymes will be able to do their job and fully digest it so your horse gains full benefit.

Feed large meals and all of a sudden you increase the speed with which it will travel through the gut and reduce the amount of time the enzymes have to do their cutting… meaning your horse misses out on a lot of the value from that feed. It will be digested to some extent in the hindgut but a lot of value is lost.

So while not the only reason you should feed little and often, it is a really important one to keep in mind.

If you have a horse struggling to gain weight eating huge feeds, you might find you get better results by feeding less! Something to consider 

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

Identifying Pastures Part 2: Bighead Grasses

Following on from our article Identifying Pastures Part 1 that looked at how to identify grasses that could cause mycotoxin problems for horses, this newsletter will help you to identify grasses that have the potential to cause Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism, also known as ‘Bighead Disease’. Bighead Disease is a severe calcium deficiency and one way it can be caused is by grazing subtropical or C4-type pastures without appropriate calcium supplementation (for more on Bighead, read FeedXL Newsletter # 25 – Bighead).

Subtropical or C4-Type pastures like kikuyu, bermuda grass (couch grass), buffel grass, setaria, green panic, pangola grass, guinea grass, purple pigeon grass, para grass and signal grass contain a compound known as oxalate. The oxalate in the grass binds most of the calcium available in the grass making it unavailable for absorption when the horse eats it.

So even though these grasses may contain plenty of calcium, horses cannot access it, meaning over time they will develop a severe calcium deficiency. The oxalate appears to also bind some of the calcium coming from other feed ingredients in the diet, rendering it useless to the horse as well. The more oxalate the pasture contains, the more rapidly a horse will develop bighead. Setaria, and specifically Kuzungula Setaria is the most dangerous high oxalate grass for horses, with severe bighead appearing in horses grazed on this grass species within one to 3 months.

Where do these grasses grow?

Bighead Disease caused by pasture has traditionally been thought of as a disease of the subtropics and tropics as this is where the high oxalate pastures were first introduced for grazing cattle (cattle don’t experience the problem as the bacteria in their rumen are able to break the oxalate/calcium compound so they can absorb the calcium). However, some of the grass species that readily cause Bighead, like Kikuyu and Bermuda Grass, can grow in a wide range of environments and due to their popularity as a hardy lawn species, they are spread well into temperate climate areas.

So don’t be complacent about Bighead Disease, even if you live in a temperate environment. The grasses that can cause this disease are widespread. Being able to identify them is important! Use this newsletter to have a wander around your paddocks to see if any of the 4 most common problem species are in your pasture.

Identifying your grasses

Now it is time for you to look at some grasses to see if you have any of the 4 most common pasture species that may cause Bighead lurking in your paddocks. Use the information in FeedXL Newsletter #24 – Identifying Pastures Part 1 as your plant physiology reference guide (you can find this here).

Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum) 

The characteristics of Kikuyu are as follows:

  1. Emerging leaves are folded
  2. Leaves have a prominent mid vein with many smaller veins running in parallel
  3. Leaves are light to bright green and moderately hairy on top and underneath.
  4. Leaf tip is slightly keeled, though leave flatten as they get older.
  5. Auricles are absent
  6. Ligules are hairy
  7. Grows using both underground rhizomes and vigorous over ground stolons (so it has an obvious matt of runners above ground).
  8. Kikuyu does not get visible seed heads but at flowering time, long, white, thread like stamens will sometimes be visible.
  9. The leaf sheath of kikuyu (where the new leaves emerge from) is pale and light green in colour, turning brown as the grass matures. It is obviously hairy.

These images show kikuyu when it is green and growing and also almost completely dried off. Note the distinctive almost lime green colour of the grass when it is green and the dense, thick matt of stolons once it has dried off.

Bermuda Grass/Couch Grass (cynodon Dactylon)

The characteristics of Bermuda Grass/Couch Grass are as follows:

  1. The seed/flowerheads are a digitate panicle with 3 to 7 thin branches 2 to 6 cm long.
  2. Emerging leaves are rolled.
  3. Leaves have a prominent mid vein with many smaller veins running in parallel.
  4. Leaves are relatively short, green and hairless to sparsely hairy with more hairs underneath.
  5. Leaf tip is flat.
  6. Auricles are absent.
  7. Ligules are short hairs on a membranous rim with a tuft of longer hairs on each end.
  8. Grows using both underground rhizomes and over ground stolons (so it has visible runners above ground, but they are not nearly as thick as seen with klikuyu).

Buffel Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris)

The characteristics of Buffel Grass (also known as African Foxtail, Black Buffel Grass or Rhodesian Foxtail) are as follows:

  1. The seed head is cylindrical (like a small bottle brush) and can be straw, grey or purple in colour.
  2. Emerging leaves are rolled
  3. Leaves are flat, hairless except for some sparse long hairs near the sheath and green to blue in colour.
  4. Leaf edges are rough and tip is flat.
  5. Auricles are absent
  6. Ligules are hairy
  7. Grows in a tussocky or bunch growth habit but it can sometime have stolons and rhizomes.

Setaria (Setaria sphacelata) 

Setaria is the most dangerous of all the sub-tropical grasses for horses, so if you have it, it is important that you identify it. The characteristics of Setaria (also known as South African Pigeon Grass and African Bristle Grass) are as follows:

  1. Spike like, panicle seed head that can be 8 – 25 cm long and varying in colour from purplish brown to brown to orange tinged.
  2. Leaves are broad, flat, grey-green in colour and generally hairless.
  3. Auricles are absent
  4. Ligules are hairy
  5. Grows in a dense tussock with short underground rhizomes.

There are many excellent photos of Setaria at this website: https://www.hear.org/starr/images/species/?q=setaria+sphacelata&o=plants

If you think you have these pastures but aren’t 100% sure, pot some of the plants you suspect are Buffel or Setaria and let them grow and go to seed. The seed head will help you to positively identify the species.

So you have these grasses … what now?

If you have accurately identified that Kikuyu, Bermuda Grass/Couch Grass, Buffel Grass or Setaria are present in your pasture, you will need to take this into account in your horse’s diets in FeedXL. First of all, determine what percentage of the pasture each of the species comprises, and then use the Advanced Pasture Builder feature to create a pasture that is comprised of these pasture types.

For example, if your pasture is 25% Kikuyu, 10% Setaria and 65% native grasses, use the Pasture Builder in FeedXL to create a pasture that is ‘C4-Type Grass – 25%, Setaria – 10%; and Native Grass – 65%. It is important to be accurate so FeedXL can calculate an accurate calcium to oxalate ratio for you and keep your horse out of harms way!

Once FeedXL knows these pastures are present in your diet it will warn you if the calcium to oxalate ratio of the diet is too low, putting your horses at risk of bighead, and guide you in adding additional calcium to achieve the minimum ratio required of 0.5 parts calcium to 1 part oxalate. For more information on this, please read FeedXL Newsletter # 25 – Bighead.

Diagrams and photos are from Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences https://cropsoil.psu.edu/, the American Lawns website https://www.american-lawns.com/, Plants of Hawaii website https://www.hear.org/ and the Informed Farmers website https://informedfarmers.com/.

 

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida Richards


Dr Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

Alfalfa (Lucerne) Hay: Friend or Foe?

Also known as lucerne in some parts of the world, alfalfa hay enjoys a varied reputation amongst horse people, with some using it as a highly valued component of their horse’s diet and others avoiding it with almost religious fervour. So, who is right? Is alfalfa hay a suitable forage for horses? Or are there other more suitable forages? The answer is yes, and yes. Alfalfa hay is a valuable forage for horses when fed to the right classes of horses and in the correct amounts for its full benefit to be realised. The following article looks at the nutrients contained in alfalfa hay and its many and varied uses in the horse industry.

Nutrient profile

Figure 1: A comparison of the digestible energy (DE), crude protein (CP), calcium (Ca), phosphorous (P) and magnesium content of early bloom lucerne hay, grass hay and oaten chaff.

Good quality alfalfa hay contains more protein and energy than grass or cereal hays and chaffs (Figure 1). Alfalfa also contains high concentrations of calcium and magnesium, and when fresh, the vitamins A and E. Alfalfa is typically low in phosphorous and depending on where it was grown, contains varying concentrations of other micro and macro minerals. The protein in alfalfa hay is of high quality and contains appreciable amounts of the essential amino acid lysine.

When to feed alfalfa?

To answer that question, we must consider the strengths and weaknesses of alfalfa hay. Firstly, note that there are no known anti‐nutritive factors in alfalfa hay. It is a very high quality, safe feed. However the higher energy and protein in alfalfa hay can result in too much energy and/or too much protein in the horse’s diet if you feed too much, so it is important to keep these nutrients in the diet within the recommended daily intake limits (RDI’s). Too much protein and/or energy can result in some problems for horses which are discussed below. As with all hays, some nutrients are lacking, particularly some of the trace‐minerals, so when feeding alfalfa hay it is important to ensure you are meeting the RDI’s when balancing your horse’s diet. The use of alfalfa hay in the diet of various classes of horses is discussed below:

1. Performance horses in training and competition

Alfalfa hay can be used to provide energy, good quality protein and a source of fibre to the diet of a performance horse; however, it must be used in moderation. Excess protein in the diet of working horses and particularly those that are stabled can be detrimental to their health and performance. Excess protein intake will increase urinary ammonia production, which may then result in respiratory problems for horses confined to a stable. Excess protein can also contribute to dehydration due to water loss through increased urine production and excretion and increases the amount of heat produced during the digestion and utilisation of feedstuffs. Therefore a diet containing protein in excess of the horse’s requirement can increase the horse’s water and electrolyte loss through sweating and can contribute to hyperthermia, and decreased performance or endurance capacity.

It is important to understand that these effects are not as a direct result of feeding alfalfa, but rather from feeding too much alfalfa. Avoid them by keeping protein within the RDI limits. Use a grass or cereal hay to supply some of the horse’s roughage/fibre requirement.

2. Spelling or idle horses

Alfalfa hay can play a role in the spelling or idle horse’s diet, and will provide these horses with good quality protein and calcium. If you keep energy and protein within your horse’s RDI, you can safely feed alfalfa without having excess weight gain due primarily to too much energy.

3. Ponies

Ponies may be safely fed alfalfa hay, but again it must be fed in moderation. Alfalfa hay, because of its highly digestible nature is capable of encouraging significant weight gain in ponies, particularly those that are easy keepers. Feeding too much alfalfa hay may therefore predisposeponies to laminitis, as the risk of laminitis increases when ponies become overweight (again, this is not as a result of feeding alfalfa, but as a result of feeding too much energy and protein which in turn leads to excess weight gain). Keep energy and protein within the recommended daily limits when using alfalfa in the diets of ponies.

Alfalfa hay is very useful in the diet of aged ponies. As horses and ponies age, they lose some ability to digest fibre and protein. Feeding them an easily digested fibre and high quality protein source in the form of alfalfa hay will help them maintain bodyweight, particularly in winter.

4. HYPP and laminitic horses

Alfalfa hay may not be suitable for horses suffering with hyperkalaemic periodic paralysis (HYPP) as its concentration of potassium is often quite high (14 – 25+ g/kg). Make sure you keep potassium in particular at the 100% RDI in these horses, regardless of the feeds you use.

In the reverse, and contrary to popular opinion, alfalfa hay is a very suitable feedstuff for horses that have suffered a bout of laminitis. The high quality protein in alfalfa hay will help the horse to repair its damaged laminae while the energy derived from the alfalfa will prevent these horses from entering a negative energy balance which slows or prevents the hoof’s healing process taking place. In comparison to some grass hays, alfalfa also contains a lower level of starches and sugars. Again, make sure you feed alfalfa hay in moderation to prevent excess weight gain; don’t exceed the energy and protein RDI’s in FeedXL.

5. Growing Horses

Alfalfa is a valuable forage in the diet of growing horses. Alfalfa provides growing horses with a digestible source of energy as well as a source of high quality protein and the essential amino acid lysine. Alfalfa’s calcium rich characteristic is also beneficial for growing horses that typically have high calcium requirements.

However, when feeding alfalfa to growing horses, the amount fed should not exceed the growing horse’s energy requirements. Growing horses fed energy in excess of their RDI’s have a much higher chance of suffering from developmental orthopaedic diseases including osteochondritis dissecans (OCD).

Feeding protein in excess of the growing horse’s protein requirements does not appear to be detrimental as the protein can be utilised as a source of energy. However, protein is an expensive source of energy and to quote Susan Garlinghouse “it is sort of like using bundles of dollar bills to start a barbeque. It’ll get the job done, but there are much cheaper, easier and more efficient ways of doing it”. Therefore, instead of using alfalfa hay to meet 100% of a growing horse’s energy requirements (which will far exceed their protein requirements) it would (depending on pasture conditions) be more economical to use some form of cereal grain or high energy fibre like sugarbeet pulp or soybean hulls to provide additional energy in the diet when needed.

Another point to be aware of when feeding alfalfa hay to growing horses is their intake of phosphorous. While feeding alfalfa hay to meet a growing horse’s protein requirements will also in most cases meet their calcium requirements, their phosphorous requirements will not be met. Feeding cereal grains will help to increase a growing horse’s intake of phosphorous, however, in many cases, phosphorous supplementation may be required (remembering that the calcium to phosphorous ratio in the diet of a growing horse should be maintained within the range of 1: 1 to 3: 1). Dicalcium phosphate is a suitable source of phosphorous for growing horses.

Also keep in mind that alfalfa hay is not a complete feed and will more often than not contain insufficient concentrations of trace minerals, in particular copper and zinc, to support sound musculoskeletal development. Thus diets utilising alfalfa hay as a protein and energy source must be balanced using an appropriate trace mineral supplement for the best results.

Once again, getting the diet balanced for the nutrient RDI’s in FeedXL is vital to making the best use of alfalfa.

6. Pregnant and Lactating Mares

Alfalfa hay is an exceptional source of energy and good quality protein for pregnant and lactating mares. Alfalfa hay will also help to support these mares’ elevated requirements for calcium and the essential amino acid lysine.

When feeding the pregnant mare alfalfa hay, take care not to exceed her energy requirements since this can cause her to become overweight. Pregnant mares should remain within a body condition score of 5 to 7 (using the Henneke scale of condition scoring) to prevent reduced milk production during the lactation period.

The lactatating mare’s energy requirements however are higher, and alfalfa hay alone will not be capable of meeting these and may, depending on pasture conditions, need to be fed in conjunction with cereal grains or high energy fibres to maintain body condition throughout lactation. Likewise, the lactating mare’s phosphorous and trace mineral requirements will not be met by a diet of alfalfa hay, thus these must also be supplemented accordingly.

As with growing horses, excess protein in the diet of pregnant and lactating mares does not appear to be harmful, however it is an unnecessary waste of this relatively expensive feed component and should be avoided if possible.

In Conclusion

Alfalfa is a valuable feedstuff for horses and is capable of providing them with energy, high quality protein, lysine, calcium and varying levels of other vitamins and minerals. However, alfalfa hay must be used correctly in the diets of all horses to realise its full benefits. Problems with the feeding of excess energy and protein are possible when feeding alfalfa hay so keep a close watch on those energy and protein RDI’s. Use grass/meadow hays in conjunction with alfalfa hay to fulfil a horse’s roughage requirement and well chosen supplements to fulfil mineral requirements. This will help you balance the diet and avoid some of the problems that can be associated with over‐feeding alfalfa hay.

 

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida Richards


Dr Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

Feeding Horses in Winter

Winter can be a tricky time of year for feeding horses, especially if you have older horses or horses that lose weight easily. Feeding the right diet during winter will help keep your horses healthy and in good body condition. Here are some tips on how you can do it:

1. Prepare for Winter Early

Use late summer and autumn while the temperatures are still comfortable and the pasture and hay quality still high to get your horse in good shape for winter. All horses during this period need to be fed a balanced diet (more on this soon) to make sure they are generally healthy and their immune systems fully functional.

If your horse tends to lose weight over winter it can be fed a little more than normal during this time to get a bit of extra condition on them, so if they lose weight during winter they won’t end up being too skinny.

You should also be looking to buy hay in summer as availability and quality are high but demand is lower meaning you will get a good quality product for less than you will pay in winter.

2. Feed plenty of forage

Forage (hay, chaff and pasture) provides your horse with many of the calories they will need to maintain weight during winter. Aside from that, forage will keep your horse warm in winter. During the digestion of forages in the horse’s gut, bacteria ferment the fibrous portions. One of the ‘by-products’ of this fermentation is heat, and it is this heat that really helps a horse to stay warm during winter.

Because of the ‘warming’ properties of forage, your horse will benefit more from an additional feed of hay than an extra feed of grain, pellets or sweetfeed in very wet, cold weather.

3. Condition score your horse regularly

Don’t throw a rug on your horse in winter and leave it on for weeks on end without taking it off to check your horse’s body condition (and of course that it doesn’t have any injuries or sores that are covered by the rug). Condition scoring involves looking at areas on your horse’s body such as the top of the neck, the wither, over the ribs and over the loin to assess the amount of body fat (which we call body condition) your horse is carrying. For more information on Body Condition Scoring, click here to see our post ‘Why Body Condition Score’.

At the very least, take your horse’s rug off every week so you can check to see if your horse is losing, maintaining or gaining weight.

4. Adjust your horse’s diet to control body weight

Because you will be condition scoring your horse regularly you will know if your horse is maintaining, gaining or losing weight. Depending on what you want your horse to be doing, you may need to adjust the diet to keep your horse at the bodyweight and condition you want.

If your horse is gaining unwanted weight, you will need to reduce or remove high energy feeds like grains, pellets, sweetfeeds or oils in the diet. If your horse is losing weight that you don’t want him to lose, you may need to feed more calories in the diet. You can do this by:

  1. Feeding more hay and if you’re not already doing so feeding some alfalfa/lucerne hay.
  2. Adding high energy feeds to the diet like pellets, sweetfeeds, oil or high energy fibres like soybean hulls, copra meal or sugarbeet pulp. Use the best quality feeds you can afford and if using a sweetfeed look for one that contains either extruded or micronised grains as these are more digestible for horses.

5. Feed a balanced diet

An unbalanced diet doesn’t meet your horse’s requirements for each of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals so your horse won’t be as healthy as he could or should be. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to:

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle wastage
  • Increased susceptibility to diseases like greasy heal and respiratory disease
  • Dull, dry coat and skin
  • Brittle and slow growing hooves
  • Suppressed immune systems

While traditionally, knowing if what you were feeding was meeting your horse’s requirements was quite hard, the FeedXL Nutrition Software makes it very easy to see if what you are feeding is the right thing for your horse. FeedXL will also help you manage your horse’s bodyweight.

6. Beware of laminitis

For horses susceptible to laminitis (including overweight horses, horses with Cushing’s Disease or those who have previously had laminitis) winter can be a danger period.

If your horse is at risk you should:

  1. Restrict your horse’s access to pasture to only the very early hours of the morning up until 11 am.
  2. Feed low sugar hay and avoid hays made from ryegrass or cereals like oats or wheat.
  3. Avoid all feeds with grain or grain by-products in them.

Beware: Most feeds that claim to be grain free are NOT. Read the label of all feeds carefully. If they contain anything like bran, pollard, millmix or millrun do not feed them to a horse prone to laminitis. By ticking the ‘Laminitis’ box on your horse’s details page in FeedXL, all of the unsuitable feeds that contain grains or grain by-products will be coloured red and you will be warned not to use them.

To learn more about feeds labelled ‘grain free’ that are actually not, click here to read our post ‘Grain Free Horse Feed: What Does It Actually Mean?

7. Add a little oil to the diet

A horse’s coat can become dry and dull during winter. To help keep the coat and skin healthy, add 1/4 cup of oil to the diet.

And Finally…

Of course all the normal rules of good horse husbandry apply in winter. Feeding a well balanced diet in conjunction with good dental, hoof and veterinary care as well as a strict worming regime will help keep your horses in top shape over winter.

 

Meet The Author: Dr Nerida Richards


Dr Nerida Richards is FeedXL’s resident equine nutrition specialist. With a degree in Rural Science, a doctorate degree in equine nutrition and nearly 20 years of full time, on the ground experience in feeding all types of horses Nerida is able to help FeedXL members solve any problem they may come up against with feeding their horses. To learn more about Nerida and to ‘meet’ the rest of the FeedXL team, check out our About Us page here.

 

Do you have a question or comment? Do you need help with feeding?

We would love to welcome you to our FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group. Ask questions and have them answered by PhD and Masters qualified equine nutritionists and spend time with like-minded horse owners. It’s free!

Click here to join the FeedXL Horse Nutrition Facebook Group

 

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