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Feed More Forage
Don't take hay for granted. A leading feed supplier and equine nutritionist, Marlin Statema, says it could be the most critical element in your animal's diet.
"Forage is the most important part of the horse's diet. That's because the horse evolved as a grazer. It has a very small stomach and can't take in a lot of feed at one time," says Statema, president of LMF Feeds in Deer Park, Washington.
Despite the fact that his company specializes in grain feeds, Statema encourages horse owners to make forage -- not grains -- the main part of their animals' diets.
"They were trying to get energy from grain and not from fiber," Statema points out.
The lack of fiber caused hind gut fermentation to slow down, he speculates. Once that occurs the horse will not perform and will not put on weight.
Statema recommends limiting protein consumption to 10-12 percent of a performance horse's diet. Too much protein can drive up water requirements, drop pH levels in the blood and increase the risk of intestinal disturbances. For a 1,000-pound horse on a moderate work schedule, he suggests feeding 15-16 pounds of alfalfa hay and 5-6 pounds of grain, or 16-18 pounds of grass hay with 6-7 pounds of grain.
If grass hay is fed to weanlings, Statema recommends a similar ratio of forage but a slightly higher ratio (1-1.25) of grain. The grain mix should have relatively high protein (15-16 percent).
Beyond 18 months of age, the horse's feed should be determined by the activity level of the horse rather than on its rate of growth. For mature horses on limited exercise, Statema suggests a daily grain ration of .3 pounds per 100 pounds of body weight and about a half-pound of hay per 100 pounds of body weight. The grain mix is formulated for the type of hay being used.
Buying good quality hay, however, is a problem. The trouble with alfalfa hay, according to Statema and other equine nutritionists, is that most of it is grown for the dairy market and is consequently rich in protein and lacking in fiber. This can be a problem in performance horses especially, causing ammonia buildup from the excess protein.
"What horses are often getting is dairy hay," Statema points out. "That's because most growers are aiming for the dairy market."
Grass hay needs to be cut early in its development in order to provide the fermentable fiber with low lignin content that horses require.
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