Q. I read your article about feeding donkeys, in which you said barley straw is safer for lower crude proteins and calories. I can’t find any other than what is sold for cleaning ponds. Is this safe for donkeys?
A. Donkeys originate from arid environments where forage is sparse and of very low nutritional value. In their native environments donkeys predominantly eat browse (the tips of woody shrubs and trees as well as some other broad-leaved plants) or forbs (flowering plants). Donkeys have developed several adaptations to survive successfully on these fibrous, low-nutrition foods. Therefore, experts typically recommend feeding donkeys forages with high fiber content and low nutritional value. Straw typically fills these criteria.
The Donkey Sanctuary is globally recognized as the authority in donkey care and management. It manages approximately a thousand donkeys at any given time and has experimented extensively in how best to feed them. Barley straw is the Donkey Sanctuary’s main recommendation, followed by wheat and then oat straw. Barley straw is favored because of its low nutritional value and because it’s easier to eat than wheat straw, which is more fibrous. Barley straw also doesn’t seem to cause the same weight gain that can occur with oat straw, which is more digestible.
Barley straw can be hard to find in the United States. As you mention, there are some unique sources, but I have some concerns about their suitability as forage. I have found some small bales available online sold for use as pet feed. These have been cleaned of dust, but they’re approximately $7 for just more than 4 pounds. If your goal is to feed all your donkey’s forage requirement this way, I think it would become quite cost-prohibitive regardless of nutritional quality. Even if fed as part of the total forage, the cost would be quite high.
When good clean straw isn’t available, my clients have found success feeding donkeys stemmy Timothy hay. This hay often has an acid detergent fiber (ADF, a measure of indigestible fiber) content of more than 40%. Most horse hay should have an ADF in the low to mid-30% range. Timothy hay with an ADF higher than 40% also tends to have low crude protein levels, below 10%. Again, this is preferable for donkeys because they’re able to recycle nitrogen and, therefore, don’t need as high a dietary crude protein content as horses.
While feeding barley hay to your donkey might be ideal, other options also work well. Just remember that while nutritional value needs to be low, the hay needs to be clean and good-quality. If you decide to give any of these alternative types of barley straw a go, try to find one sold as a feed rather than solely as pond cleaner.