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

Add Serving Of Caution To The Tender Spring Grass

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 17, 2016

www.GettyEquineNutrition.com

By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

 

Spring is almost upon us in most of the country, so it’s time to revisit that critical topic: spring grazing.
Transitioning a horse from hay to pasture must be handled with care; this point is non-negotiable. For every horse, a gradual change from hay to grass is required to allow the digestive system to adapt, but for the insulin-resistant horse, grazing time and duration can make the difference between soundness and a disabling condition like laminitis. This time of year can be a test of patience for horse—and owner. The horse may be pawing at the gate to get to the first taste of tender spring grass, yet the owner must pay close attention to making the transition safe and healthful.

As the leaves form from the first spring sprouts, the sugar and starch content increases, making it especially tempting. Regardless of the growth stage, quantities should be monitored because horses crave fresh grass and will eat volumes of it, making their overall non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) consumption dangerously high for horses who are overweight, cushingoid, or who have experienced pasture-related laminitis.

Temperature and sunlight play a major role in the amount of NSC accumulation. To be safe, here are the rules:

  • When the night temperature is below 40 degrees F, the grass is too high in NSC.
  • Once it gets above 40 degrees F at night, the lowest NSC level is before the sun rises.
  • The NSC level is highest in late afternoon, after a sunny day.

 

There is no exact “best time” to turn out your horses on pasture. Generally speaking in moderate climates, it’s safest before dawn, until approximately 10:00 am, and then again at night, starting at around 11:00 pm. Start slowly, offering hay when horses are not on fresh grass.

Finally, test your pasture! Yes, testing is not only for hay. It will take the guesswork out of knowing which times are best.

 

Permission to reprint this article is granted, provided attribution is given to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. No editorial changes may be made without her permission. Dr. Getty appreciates being notified of any publication.

 

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.

 

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com — buy it there and have it inscribed by the author, or get it at Amazon (www.Amazon.com) or other online retail bookstores. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered “Spotlight on Equine Nutrition” series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts for equestrians.

 

Find a world of useful information for the horseperson at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com: Sign up for Dr. Getty’s informative, free e-newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty directly at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

 

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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

Horses That Graze on Pasture All Day Eat More Slowly

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Feeding Tips from Dr. Juliet Getty

http://gettyequinenutrition.biz/Tipofthemonth/Tipofthemonth.htm

Horses that graze all day on Pasture eat more slowly

If you let your horse out to graze on pasture for only a few hours each day, and provide hay the rest of the time, you’ve likely noticed how he approaches the grass like a vacuum cleaner, barely lifting his head the entire time he is outside. On the other hand, horses who graze on pasture 24/7 are more relaxed, eating less grass at a slower pace, taking time to rest and interact with buddies.

Researchers at North Carolina State University were interested in just how much pasture horses consume at varying combinations of pasture and hay availability. What they found confirms what we have all witnessed. At varying levels of pasture turnout, an 1100 lb (500 kg) horse will consume the following amounts of grass dry matter (all horses were given free choice hay when removed from pasture):

  • 24 hours/day: 0.77 lb per hour (0.35 kg/hr)
  • 9 hours/day: 1.32 lb/hr (0.6 kg/hr)
  • 6 hours/day: 1.65 lb/hr (0.75 kg/hr)
  • 3 hours/day: 2.2 lb/hr (1.0 kg/hr)

The less time you allow for pasture grazing, the more excited your horse will be at the opportunity to have fresh grass and will eat nearly three times faster than if he had access to pasture 24/7.

Note: To convert lb/hr to kg/hr, divide by 2.2

HAY BEFORE GRAIN, OR VICE VERSA?

Which should be fed first – hay or grain?  If you’re feeding correctly, this issue is truly a moot point because the horse should have access to forage (hay and/or pasture) 24/7 with no gaps. Therefore, when fed concentrates, the horse’s digestive tract should already have hay flowing through it.

If fed starchy cereal grains (oats, corn, barley, etc.) on an empty stomach, the horse will produce even more acid (potentially leading to ulcers) and it will be leave the stomach quickly. When this happens, there is a risk that it will not be fully digested in the small intestine (especially if large amounts are fed), and end up in the hindgut where starch can be fermented by the bacterial population. This can lead to endotoxin-related laminitis.

If hay is present in the stomach first, it creates a physical barrier for the grain to move out of the stomach as quickly. Starch does not get digested in the stomach so the grain is simply mixed and churned into a semi-liquid mass, which enters the small intestine where it can be digested down to glucose. If there is hay present, fiber mixes with the starch and the whole mass enters the small intestine. Fiber is not digested until it reaches the hind gut, but its presence slows down the digestion of starch, and obstructs the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, leading to a less dramatic rise in insulin.

One thing to note – there is more water involved when hay is present (from increased drinking and saliva production). This is a good thing since digestion within the small intestine cannot take place without water.

SUPPLEMENTING THE SUPPLEMENTED FEED

“For an adult horse with moderate activity, feed .75 to 1.0 lbs per 100 lbs of body weight.” These are the feeding instructions for a popular commercially fortified feed. If your horse weighs 1100 lbs (500 kg), you’ll need to feed 8.25 to 11 lbs of feed per day. For enough calories? Enough protein? Enough vitamins and minerals?  Yes, to all of the above and more. That’s a lot of feed!  That could amount to three to five two-quart scoops (depending on the weight of the feed) per day. And you’ll need to divide it into multiple feedings since meal size should never exceed 4 lbs (your horse’s stomach is small compared to the rest of his digestive tract).

Chances are excellent that you don’t feed anything close to the suggested amount.  Does it matter? Yes. Most of what you pay for when you buy a fortified feed, are the fortifications. You pay for the vitamins, the minerals, and any special ingredients such as flaxseed and soybean meals to provide omega 3s and protein. The only way your horse will benefit from these nutrients is to feed according to directions. Modify them and you’ll need to “supplement the supplement.”  For example, this feed provides 100 IUs of vitamin E per lb. If you fed half of the recommended amount, say 5 lbs, your horse would only receive 500 IUs per day. That’s the bare minimum, according to the National Research Council, for a 500 kg horse. Most equine nutritionists agree, however, that this horse at maintenance would do better at amounts closer to 1,000 IUs per day. Furthermore, as activity increases, so does the vitamin E requirement. Therefore, supplementation would be appropriate.

Other nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and D, minerals such as copper and zinc, and a host of feedstuffs provided to offer enough fat and protein, may need to be supplemented when less than recommended amounts are fed. As you can imagine, it becomes very tricky to figure out just how much to supplement. You could simply give half the supplement dosage if you are feeding half the fortified feed dosage. But to do this accurately, you should figure out how much your horse would have gotten if fed the recommended amounts, and then calculate how much supplement to feed to make up the difference. If you’re not comfortable with crunching numbers, your best source of information would be a qualified equine nutritionist.

Bottom line… pay attention to labels, weigh your feed using a scale, not a scoop, and keep your calculator handy when making adjustments that supplement the supplement.

HORSES NEED SUPPLEMENTAL SALT YEAR ROUND

Regardless of the weather, horses require a daily supply of salt. In cold seasons, salt helps promote enough water consumption to prevent dehydration. In warm seasons, salt replaces what is lost from perspiration. A full-sized horse requires at least one ounce (two level tablespoons or 30 ml) of salt each day for maintenance, this much provides 12 grams of sodium. Heat, humidity, and exercise increase the horse’s need.

There are several ways to accomplish this. The best ways include offering free-choice granulated salt, or adding salt to your horse’s meal (for palatability, limit the amount to no more than 1 tablespoon per meal). A salt block should be available should your horse want more. A plain, white salt block is preferable, but many horses do not lick it adequately since it can be irritating to the tongue. Mineralized blocks often go untouched due to their bitter taste; however a natural sea salt block is often preferred.

Calculate the amount of sodium your horse is getting from any commercial feeds or supplements and add salt accordingly. Always have fresh water nearby.