Alternative Fiber Sources for Horses

Need to stretch your hay supply? Consider adding hay cubes, complete feeds, or forage byproducts.
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soaked beet pulp
Studies have shown that a horse’s diet can contain up to 55% beet pulp without negative effects. | Photo: The Horse Staff

As a winter for the ages in many parts of the country comes to a close, some horse owners might be watching their hay supply dwindle as they wait for suppliers to cut forage in spring. The good news is that there are alternative fiber sources owners can use to supplement their horses’ diets if hay.

No matter the breed or intended use, all horses require fiber in their diets. According to the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses (2007, 6th Edition), a large body of evidence suggests that insufficient dietary fiber can lead to several digestive issues (such as colic) and behavioral vices (such as cribbing) in horses. Horses’ fiber needs are met most commonly by pasture and hay, but in the absence of these sources, horse owners must find alternative fiber options. Some common alternatives include hay cubes, complete feeds, and fiber byproducts.

Hay cubes are an excellent fiber source for horses, and are generally easily accessible at most feed stores. The two main benefits to using hay cubes versus hay are:

  • Hay cubes typically contain less dust than hay, meaning horses are less subject to inhaling particles that could contribute to respiratory disease; and
  • Offering hay cubes generally results in less wasted feed compared to hay.

If offered voluntarily, most horses will consume more hay cubes than hay, so owners should measure and monitor their horses’ intake. Hay cubes can be fed just like hay, at a 1:1 ratio of the like hay type the horse currently consumes. For example, if a horse consumes five pounds of timothy hay at each feeding, replace that with five pounds of timothy hay cubes and adjust if needed to maintain the animal’s proper weight. Hay cubes are heavier in weight, so you’ll need to weigh them to ensure the horse is getting the proper amount of forage.

Complete feeds are formulated to provide a large proportion of a horse’s nutrient needs, including fiber, and are readily available through most equine feed manufacturers. Complete feeds usually contains more than 16% crude fiber and are designed to be fed in larger amounts compared to a lower fiber grain mix with little to no hay alongside. Thus, provide several small meals throughout the day. Feeding directions are included on all complete feed packages; following label directions is important to ensure horses consume adequate amounts of nutrients, fiber, and other feed components.

Byproduct fiber sources include beet pulp, bran, and grain hulls. Beet pulp, produced by sugar beet processing, is a popular fiber source for horses because of its digestibility and palatability. Studies have shown that a horse’s diet can contain up to 55% beet pulp without negative effects. It’s important to remember, however, that beet pulp’s digestibility is higher than most grass hays, so ensure the horse’s diet is balanced properly when making the switch.

Brans, such as rice bran and wheat bran, are another option but are often less desirable due to their high phosphorus concentrations. If feeding bran, ensure the horse is consuming adequate calcium to keep the calcium:phosphorus ration to at least 1:1. Additionally, remember that rice bran contains high fat levels, so it should not be used in overweight or obese horses.

Oat hulls are also high-fiber, but are often dusty and should be blended with water prior to feeding.

Because these fiber byproducts are only fermentable fiber sources, they should be fed alongside hay or another complete fiber source. Thus, these sources should be used to stretch hay rather than replace it.

Take-Home Message

Horse owners should familiarize themselves with alternative fiber sources to either stretch or replace pasture and/or hay. Hay cubes, complete feeds, and byproducts are all viable fiber sources and can be beneficial when fed correctly. If questions arise on feeding alternative forage sources to individual horses, contact your veterinarian or equine nutritionist.

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Written by:

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen has been a performance horse nutritionist for an industry feed manufacturer for more than a decade. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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