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Cold Weather? Hay is Like Your Horse’s Heater

Do you ever wonder what is best to feed in really cold weather to help your horse stay warm? Well, the answer is hay or any type of high fibre forage really.

The fibre in hay and other forages is digested in your horse’s hindgut via the process of bacterial fermentation. A by-product of this fermentation process is HEAT!

So by feeding extra forage you are giving your horse’s resident population of bacteria more fibre to ferment… which in-turn means they will generate more heat and help to keep your horse warm. Neat huh!

Just keep in mind though that you can overdo it. Feeding more than about 3% of your horse’s bodyweight in feed per day (or more than 3 lb/100 lb BW; 3 kg/100 kg BW) will have the effect of increasing passage rate through the gut.

So while there would be more fibre for the bacteria to ferment the fibre would spend less time in the hindgut, with less time for fermentation and heat production. Catch-22!

For more tips on feeding in winter head on over to: https://feedxl.com/7-feeding-horses-in-winter/

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Cold Weather and Calorie Requirements

Have you ever wondered how much of an impact the weather has on your horse’s calorie requirement?

While it is poorly documented in horses, observation suggests that the environmental conditions a horse is kept in can have a huge impact on their requirement for calories. Here are some of my (Nerida’s) personal observations:

Winter 2016 in the Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia

Winter 2016 was exceptionally wet and quite cold in the Hunter Valley. We really struggled to get weanlings to grow at ‘normal’ rates, even on maximum amounts of high quality feed with ample excellent quality pasture. The problem was worse on farms where paddocks were waterlogged and the weanlings simply couldn’t get dry and warm.

So instead of being able to partition calories toward growing, they were burning them all up just staying warm.

This year (2017) has been a very dry winter and weanlings are growing well on less feed and lower quality pasture. Same feed, same genetics, same farms, just different weather… and notably, not wet!

Autumn 2016 on the North Island of New Zealand

By contrast, the 2016 autumn season in New Zealand was unusually dry and warm. One farm, who had been using the same feed regime for several years (including the same quantity of feed for weanlings) started to experience weanlings with ‘contracted tendons’. There were a couple of new cases of weanlings ‘going over at the knee’ every few days. Needless to say the owners were concerned.

In the end, it came down to the weather. With the drier, warmer weather these little guys were burning less calories to stay warm and had more to use to grow and were just growing faster than they should have been. We reduced their feed and subsequent calorie intake and had no further cases.

Summer in Saudi Arabia

Broodmares and growing horses in Saudi Arabia who are housed outdoors with no air conditioning and are fully hand fed need less feed during the summer months (and excess body condition can be an issue). With such a high ambient temperature, they need virtually no calories to maintain body temperature. They also don’t move a lot because they are so hot. And this happens predictably every year.

I don’t rug my own horses so they are fully at the mercy of whatever the weather throws at them. Last year, during winter, it rained and rained. All of them had ribs showing (they are horribly easy keepers so this was exciting for me and a good thing!) by mid winter, despite having plenty of pasture available to them.

This year by contrast, it has been cold, but dry. And there is not a rib to be seen despite having been restricted to a very small part of their paddock with minimal (and I really mean minimal) pasture. The difference … rain!

As we saw in the Hunter Valley in the first example, horses can tolerate cold, dry weather easily. My horses demonstrated this perfectly this year. As soon as they get wet though, their insulation provided by their woolly winter coats that effectively traps heat close to their body is lost, PLUS when they are wet evaporative cooling (loss of heat from a wet surface) increases.

So it’s a double whammy; they can’t trap heat, plus they lose more heat. Which all combines to mean in cold, wet weather, their calorie requirement is significantly increased as they need to produce so much more heat (which they do by burning calories) to maintain their body temperature.

As you all know, calorie (or Digestible Energy) requirements vary horse to horse and are, as just discussed, also influenced heavily by the weather. So when using FeedXL, use the Digestible Energy requirement provided as a guide, but don’t be surprised if your horse is sitting above (i.e. needs more feed than is estimated) or below (needs less feed) the requirement you are given.

The only accurate way to know if your horse is getting enough calories is to use your eyes and your hands. Body condition score your horse regularly and adjust the amount of Digestible Energy in the diet up or down if your horse starts to lose or gain weight.

Or you might be like Sam and I and a whole lot of our FeedXL members and feel like you are constantly adjusting calorie intake down and making zero impact on how overweight your horses are! And like us you might then just wait and hope the next winter is wet and cold!!

Some more information about Body Condition Scoring is here for you: https://feedxl.com/1-why-body-condition-score/

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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.

 

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.

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