Feeding Your Horse During a Drought

If you are experiencing a hay shortage, consider these options for hay replacement.

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horse grazing in dry pasture
During a drought, there are many hay replacement options that can provide horses with the nutrients they need. | Photos.com

Q: Sometimes we have trouble sourcing hay in my region, especially during a drought. I lose sleep over realizing one day I cannot find enough hay for my horses. Is there a trick I can have in my back pocket to feed my horses if my hay supply were to dry up?

A:  This is a great question because hay supplies seem to be a concern in many areas around the country. Most hay varieties will not be harvested in the United States until May or June, so many horse owners will be facing shortages of good quality, reasonably priced hay at least until then.

There are a variety of hay replacement options to choose from, including chopped hay, hay pellets, hay cubes, haylage, commercial hay stretchers and complete feeds. These products are made from a variety of hay sources and fiber ingredients and horse owners can choose the product or combination of products that best fits their needs. 

Commercial hay stretchers and complete feeds are pelleted products formulated with blends of fiber ingredients that provide the appropriate types and amounts of fibers to effectively replace long-stemmed hay. They are usually higher in calories and more nutritionally balanced than hay or hay pellets. Feeding hay stretchers or complete feeds can be a cost-effective alternative to feeding expensive or poor-quality hay, especially considering that the concentrate portion of the diet can be reduced or possibly eliminated, and there is little to no waste compared to hay.

There are also fiber ingredients, such as soybean hulls, wheat bran, wheat midds, and beet pulp that can be used to replace up to 50% of the hay. These fiber ingredients are higher in calories and fermentable fibers than most long-stemmed hay but lack adequate indigestible fibers to replace 100% of the hay.

Horses should eat a minimum of 1% of their body weight per day in hay, or hay replacement products, to provide adequate levels and types of fibers to support proper gut function. Most horse owners feed between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of body weight (15-25 lbs/1000-lb horse) in hay per day. Pelleted hay or hay replacement option should be fed in a similar amount, by weight, as long-stemmed hay. 

A change in source or type of hay is a significant dietary change so the transition should be made gradually. If possible, begin using a hay replacement option well before you run out of long-stemmed hay. For example, instead of feeding full hay, gradually reduce the long-stemmed hay and replace it with a commercial hay stretcher. This will “stretch” your long-stemmed hay supply out to last twice as long.  When changing from hay to a hay replacement option, transition over seven to 10 days to avoid digestive upset and let horses get used to the change.   

Horses will finish eating pelleted hay, hay stretchers, or complete feeds faster than long-stemmed hay. For best results, divide the daily ration into three or more meals per day and feed horses in a larger trough at or near ground level, so pellets can be spread out and horses don’t eat aggressively. 

A hay shortage can be challenging, but taking advantage of the many options available to replace or stretch the current hay supply will help get horses through until the next hay season.

Do you have an equine nutrition question? The Horse’s editors want to hear from you! Send your questions to editorial@TheHorse.com.


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Written by:

Karen Davison, PhD, director of equine technical solutions for Purina Animal Nutrition, earned her Master of Science and PhD degrees in equine nutrition from Texas A&M University. Davison’s research included some of the early work investigating the use of added fat in horse diets. She spent eight years as an associate horse specialist with Texas Agricultural Extension Service, developing and teaching youth and adult education programs, prior to joining Purina in 1993. Davison has guest-lectured at universities and veterinary schools, is published in scientific research journals and magazines, has authored book chapters, and presented at regional and national veterinary meetings on equine nutrition topics. She and her family are involved with training and competing in the cutting and rodeo performance horse industries.

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