Feeding Transitions in the Spring

My horses claim about 10 of our 15 acres of land, which you’d think would be plenty for half a dozen horses. Our house, barns, arenas, offices, and a warehouse are squeezed into a corner of the property and the rest of the place is procured and manicured just for the horses.

We have about 10 irrigated acres, which is like Park Avenue real estate in the West. But living in the high mountain desert as we do—even with irrigation water—it’s only enough pasture for what I fondly refer to as “recreational grazing.” (Meaning, it doesn’t help my hay bill much, but it sure makes the horses happy!)

Winters are long and hard here in the Rocky Mountains and the grass only grows from April through August. The rest of the year it is decidedly brown. Keeping the grass green is a challenge in this climate and horses are sure hard on the land. Keeping the horses healthy while eating that green grass is also a challenge and a labor of love. Come springtime, managing the pasture for the health of the fields while transitioning our horse’s diet from hay to green grass, without stressing their digestive health, requires some serious planning, as well as detailed execution.

 

Baby Grass is Delicate

Horses’ teeth and hooves are not. While we may turn our horses out in the fields late in the winter before any new growth starts, and let them browse the dead grass, at the first sign of green shoots, the horses are eighty-sixed from the pastures. For the next month at least, until we can see the first signs of seed heads on the short grasses, we keep the horses totally off the fields. This allows a good head of growth in the pastures and will establish the grass for the whole summer. Horses will paw and dig and gnaw for the first delectable shoots of green grass and they are incredibly damaging to young grass. Keeping them off the fields early on makes the grazing last longer at the other end of the summer.

 

Over-eaters Anonymous

Once the grass is healthy and ready for grazing, our focus shifts to managing the change in the horses’ diets from dry hay (almost a year old by now) to fresh green grass. Between over-eating and the drastic change to the horses’ delicate digestive balance, it pays to be very, very careful. My horses have access to an all-you-can-eat grass hay buffet, open 24/7. That way their digestive tract is always full—the way nature intended.

When I am ready to start turning them out to the pasture, I wait until late in the day, when their bellies are already full and when the sugar content is low in the green grass. Our horses are programmed to come in the barn at night, so we’ll turn them out an hour before their bedtime. That way they only eat a bit and then they’re ready to come in at the normal time.

Over the next 3-4 weeks, we’ll turn them out a few minutes earlier each day, as they gradually shift from mostly hay to mostly green grass diets. In colder climates like ours, early morning grasses can be hazardous to horses with metabolic issues, so in the spring and early summer, we avoid letting the horses into the fields before mid-day. During this time of transition, we are watching the horses closely for over-eating—as some will do—especially when they have been deprived of the delicacy for so long.

We also keep the horses on heavier than normal doses of Proviable, a pro- and pre-biotic. This helps stabilize their digestive tract and is especially important when horses are undergoing any kind of stress—whether it is a change of diet or a road trip or arduous training.

Since our horses are all in training—worked or exercised on a daily basis—I don’t really have any concerns about obesity. I find my horses are so much healthier and content when they have 24/7 access to a low-protein grass hay. While some horses might put on a little extra weight in the beginning, once they realize the food will always be there they slow their eating way down and go back to a healthier weight. As they switch to more and more green grass the horses will definitely put on a few pounds, but they also get a sheen to their coats and are happier.

In nature, horses put on weight in the summer when the foraging is better, then they lose weight over the winter when it’s slim picking. Their biology is designed this way and this cycle triggers other things like shedding and ovulation. I want my horses to lose weight over the winter and put it back on in the summer. Some horses have major health issues related to obesity because they put on more weight every summer but never lose it in the winter. Consequently, they get fatter and fatter every year. The easiest time to get the weight off a horse is in the winter.

 

Keeping it Green

Our pastures require a fair amount of maintenance during the spring and summer. Early in the spring, before the grass starts growing, we drag/harrow the fields, to break up the manure clumps and pull out some of the thatch (and every five years or so the fields need to be burned off to get rid of the thick thatch). Since we spread the manure from the stalls and paddocks in the fields, the harrow helps break it up, providing a smooth layer of fertilizer to the grass. Recycling manure is great for the growth of the grass; adding a commercial fertilizer is even better, but much more costly.

We start irrigating the pastures as soon as the snow melt starts and the ditches are running. We use flood irrigation—a manual process that involves damming the ditch and flooding the fields with water. We only have access to the water on certain days (since we share it with others), so our whole lives tend to revolve around irrigation days. Water is a big deal in the West; water rights are very valuable and never taken for granted. We have to work the water through the fields to make sure every nook and cranny is covered; the water is far too precious to waste even a gallon.

We also mow our fields once or twice during the summer. Horses are very particular about the actual plants they eat, selecting the tender sweet grass and leaving the weeds and other kinds of grasses. By mowing (with the blades set as high as they go) we chop off the weeds before they seed and the grass gets stronger. When you mow grass before it seeds out, it grows even harder, trying to get to seed. Keeping our fields mowed improves the growth and quality of the grass while discouraging the weeds.

 

A Labor of Love

Maintaining the pastures is a lot of work, but like most things in life, if it’s important to you it’s worth working for. Seeing the horses content in the field, basking in the sun and picking and sorting through the plants to find their little treasures more than makes up for the work we put into it. Seeing the shine and dapples in their coat that only green grass gives a horse pleases my eye and puts a smile on my face.

There’s a reason why horse enthusiasts tend to be hard workers—it takes a lot of effort to keep horses happy and healthy! But the end result makes me forget about the extra work and gives me the satisfaction of doing the best I can do for both the horses and the land.

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

Do You Need To Analyze Your Hay?

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Many horses rely entirely on hay for their forage needs. Is hay nutritious? Not very. Hay is dead grass; it no longer contains many of the vitamins, omega 3s and omega 6s it once had as living pasture. It does, however, contain protein, carbohydrates, and minerals, and is a significant source of energy. But does it have enough to maintain health? Testing will help remove the guesswork out of diet planning.

Feasible approaches to testing

It is best to have at least 2 month’s supply of hay, but you may not have enough space to store that much. Or you may board your horse where a new supply is brought in every week, often from different growers.

Consider recommending testing to your barn manager or hay provider. Hay brokers who test their hay and sell it along with a guaranteed analysis often find that customers are willing to pay slightly more for each bale. If the providers are not willing to do this, you might consider offering to pay for the test; it will help you as well as other horse owners.

Knowing the nutrient content of your hay is the first step in evaluating any health concerns

While a vitamin/mineral supplement is necessary for filling in the nutritional gaps that exist in hay, there are several components of the hay analysis report that you should pay attention to, depending on the health of your horse. Of particular importance are those horses who are prone to developing laminitis. The feed value of your hay can also influence body weight, immune function, and overall body condition. The table below shows relevant indicators when interpreting your hay analysis report.

 

 Hay Analysis Values that Impact Horse Health 
Digestible Energy DE provides you with the number of calories your horse is getting from the hay, expressed as Mcals/lb or Mcals/kg. DE should be no more than 0.88 Mcals/lb (1.94 Mcals/kg) on an as-fed basis, if the horse is overweight.
Crude Protein CP tells you how much protein (nitrogen) is in the hay but tells you nothing about the variety and proportion of amino acids (which influence quality). To boost protein quality, feed a variety of grasses, and add more protein sources (e.g., ground flax, chia seeds, split peas, hemp seeds, alfalfa, beet pulp, etc.)
NDF Neutral detergent fiber measures water-insoluble, structural components within the cell wall: cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin; it does not include water-soluble fibers (pectin and mucilage). As plants mature, NDF increases, providing more bulk and less digestibility. Digestible energy and voluntary intake decreases.NDF greater than 60% is worthwhile for overweight horses since it is lower in calories. Lower NDF hays are softer and more digestible, making them appropriate for maintaining body condition of hard keepers, growing horses, and those with higher energy needs.

 

ESC + Starch Ethanol-soluble carbohydrates include simple sugars and short strands of sugars. These, along with starch, are easily digested in the foregut (small intestine) down to glucose, which signals insulin secretion.Insulin elevation promotes body fat storage and increases the risk of laminitis. Insulin resistant horses require low ESC + Starch, which should ideally be less than 10% on an as-fed basis, and less than 11% on a dry-matter basis. This also applies to horses suffering from PPID and PSSM.

 

Warm season grasses and alfalfa tend to be lower in ESC and higher in starch than cool-season grasses. Grain hays (such as oats, wheat, rye) can develop seed heads which are very high in starch.

WSC + Starch = NSC Water soluble carbohydrates mainly include ESC along with polysaccharides known as fructans which are fermented by the microbial population in the hindgut (cecum and large colon). Too much fructan fermentation reduces hindgut pH, leading to cecal acidosis, endotoxemia, and a cascade of events culminating in laminitis.[i]WSC + Starch equates to the non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) indicator. NSC that is considerably larger than ESC + Starch, indicates high fructans in the hay. Elevated fructans can be problematic for any horse, regardless of health. Cool-season grasses accumulate fructans, whereas warm-season grasses and alfalfa do not.

 

An NSC percentage less than 12% on an as-fed basis (13% on a dry matter basis), is a favorable target for the insulin resistant horse or one who is prone toward laminitis.

Ca:P Ratio Ideally, there should be twice as much calcium as phosphorus in the diet. Most grasses match this ratio. Alfalfa, however, has considerably more calcium. If you feed large amounts of alfalfa, choose supplements that are designed for alfalfa-based diets (they are low in calcium).
Ca:Mg Ratio Ideally, the calcium to magnesium ratio should be 2:1. Magnesium supplementation assists with muscle spasms, “sensitive” behavior, and insulin resistance.
Fe:Zn Ratio Most hays are high in iron so additional supplementation is not necessary. Too much iron exacerbates insulin resistance. Furthermore, iron competes with zinc for absorption. Therefore it should not be more than five times the level of zinc. Zinc deficiencies can lead to depressed immune function and poor wound healing.
Zn:Cu Ratio Excess zinc can interfere with copper absorption. Ideally, zinc should be between 3 and 5 times more than copper. Copper is required throughout the body, including healthy red blood cells, and melanin production in hair coat color.
Nitrates High nitrates can be toxic, interfering with red blood cell’s ability to transport oxygen. Test if your hay has been exposed to excessive fertilization or contains large amounts of weeds. Values should never be higher than 0.44%.

 

How to test your hay

Your goal is to obtain a representative sample, since hay bales can differ, especially if they contain mixtures of forages. Use a hay probe or pull clumps of hay from the inside of 15 to 20 bales. Mix together in a dry bucket. Then pull from the mixture enough to stuff a quart-size freezer bag. Equi-Analytical Labs is an excellent choice for your analysis[ii].

Establish a relationship with your hay producer

If you know the person who actually cuts the grass, discuss environmental factors that can significantly impact the NSC level:[iii]

  • NSC content is lowest before sunrise.
  • Cool nights (less than 40 degrees F (4 degrees C) will promote NSC storage and grass should not be cut the day following a cold night.
  • Grass that is shaded will have a lower NSC level.
  • NSC content increases during drought conditions.
  • Cuttings later in the season will be lower in NSC.
  • More mature grasses will be lower in calories, and more coarse due to a higher indigestible fiber content.
  • Grass that has gone to seed will be higher in starch.

Remember, forage 24/7 is the foundation for any horse

You can have the most expensive, most nutritious hay available, but it must be flowing, non-stop, through your horse’s digestive tract. There are many physiological and hormonal reasons for this; read more in the Getty Equine Nutrition Library[iv], as well as in Dr. Getty’s book, Equine Digestion – It’s Decidedly Different.[v]

About Dr. Getty
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements. Hear Dr. Getty address issues in horse nutrition at the Kirkland House Foundation in Delta, British Columbia, sponsored by “Hay…Girl!” on May 2, 2015. For more information, contact Pam Janssen at precioushaygirl@gmail.com or call 604-961-7265.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at Dr. Getty’s website, www.gettyequinenutrition.com, as well as from Amazon (www.Amazon.com) and other online book retailers. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered “Spotlight on Equine Nutrition” series are also available at her website (where Dr. Getty offers special package pricing) and from Amazon (in print and Kindle versions) and from other online retailers. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts for horse-loving friends.

Dr. Getty’s website, www.gettyequinenutrition.com, offers a generous stock of free, useful information for the horseperson. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.

[i] Longland, A.C., and Byrd, B.M., 2006. Pasture nonstructural carbohydrates and equine laminitis. Journal of Nutrition 136: 2099S-2101S.

[ii] Equi-Analytical Labs www.equi-analytical.com, a division of Dairy-One, is a reputable laboratory that concentrates on analyses applicable to horses. Their Equi-Tech test (#601) is economical ($28) and comprehensive, offering an excellent amount of information.

[iii] Watts, K.A., 2004. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice, 3(1), 88-95.

[iv] Click on “Library” at www.gettyequinenutrition.com

[v] One of seven volumes in the Spotlight on Equine Nutrition Series: http://gettyequinenutrition.biz/TeleSeminars/TeleseminarBooks/SpotlightonEquineNutritionTeleseminarSeries.htm

Safety Concerns: Introducing To New Herd, New Feed

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Hi Julie,

I am going to be moving my quarter horse mare (4 yr old) from a stall barn to a 3 acre pasture with 2 other mares who are 3 and 5. I was wondering if I should be thinking about how to introduce her to the other 2 horses or should I let them work it out? Also, she has been fed 2x per day on a dry grass/alfalfa mix and now she will have real green grass to eat (although the pasture is fairly sparse), should I be concerned about her diet change? They will still feed 2x per day grass hay, as the pasture is fairly bare.

One more question, I am going to get her shots done (west Nile and 3 way) 2 days after I move her. Will the stress of the move and food change have any effects on the shots?

Thank you so much for your help. I love reading your website and saw you at the horse expo in Denver last March. Very impressive!

Answer: Introducing horses to a new herd always comes with a risk that a horse might be injured while they sort out the new pecking order. Whenever possible, the horses should be introduced gradually by putting them in adjacent pens where they can first get to know each other over the fence (make sure it is a safe fence).

Another way to handle this is to put the new horse with one of the other horses, let them get to know each other, then introduce another, and so on until everyone is acquainted. Of course, you do not always have options and most of the time, when you put a new horse in, there is a little bit of a ruckus then things settle down. If there is one or more horse in the group that is very aggressive, dominant or a bully, then be very careful and supervise the introductions so that if things get out of hand, you can disrupt the herd and separate the horses (only expert hands should do this as it can be very dangerous).

Be very careful putting any horse onto green pasture and always introduce them slowly. This sudden change in diet from very bland dry hay to rich green grass can cause both digestive upset and grass founder (laminitis). It doesn’t sound like your pasture is very lush, so it may not be a problem at all. If they have to work fairly hard to get the grass, it is probably not going to cause a problem. If they are still feeding the horses a full ration, there is probably not enough grass there for the horse to get sick on. Still, anytime a horse’s feed is changed, it should be done gradually over a week or two and the horse should be watched closely during that time for any signs of sickness.

As for the inoculations, I try not to vaccinate horses during any time that they may be hot and bothered or upset. Chances are slim that the vaccine would cause a problem, but why risk it? Sometimes horses will feel a little off after inoculations, so why add to their grief? I don’t think two days later is an issue, but I wouldn’t do it at the same time you are introducing her to the herd. It has been said that it is best not to give West Nile at the same time as other inoculations, if it can be avoided. If your vet is coming out to give the shots, then she will probably give them all at the same time because it is not a big enough issue for her to make another trip. As always when you inoculate, make a note of where the shot was given and when (i.e., 5/5/05 WNV left hip) so that if the horse later develops any problems, you have the info you need. Also, whenever horses are inoculated, there should be a shot of epinephrine on hand in case a horse has an anaphylactic reaction to a shot. Finally, inter-nasal strangles vaccine should never be given on the same day as shots are given to the horse because the risk of the horse blowing out the vaccine onto his body or another horse’s body, and then the vaccine being injected into him with another shot and getting an abscess, is too high.

I hope your transition to a new facility goes smoothly.

JG

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