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Keeping a horse healthy need not break the bank

Independent equine nutritionist Clare MacLeod explains how to cope with the big winter feed squeeze.

Finally, we had a lovely hot summer (2010), but it started too early for the growing season, and both grass and grain crops did not have enough rain for a good start.


Yields of both forage and grain are down, meaning prices will be up. Both hay and haylage will be in shorter supply and be more expensive than usual, and the cost of compound feed is set to rise.


How does the horse owner cope, ensuring their horses are healthy and receive a balanced diet, without breaking the bank?

Winter feeding

Feeding any horse correctly should involve feeding plenty of forage, and adding other products - feeds and supplements – only to balance out shortages in the forage.


These shortages could be energy (calories), i.e. the horse loses weight when fed just forage or vitamins and minerals - since most forage is short in at least some micronutrients.


For a horse that maintains weight on plenty of hay and some winter grazing, then the only necessary addition is a multivitamin and mineral supplement, perhaps mixed into a little plain chaff or unmolassed sugar beet.


Many horse owners limit the amount of forage they feed, usually by offering just one hay net overnight for stabled horses. Such horses usually require extra concentrate feed to maintain weight, especially if there is little grazing available.


Simply increasing the amount of forage overnight to ad lib – as much as the horse will eat – often helps to maintain weight alone, meaning savings can be made on compound concentrate feed.


Vitamin and mineral supplementation is required in such cases, however, because preserved forage is short of both essential micronutrients.


What about sugar beet pulp, everyone’s favourite winter extra feed? Sugar beet is a very useful and under used feed, which can be used in small quantities to give succulence and mix in supplements, or in larger quantities to maintain weight and condition (use unmolassed for this purpose).


It should always be fed with the dry weight in mind, and because most owners assess how much they feed after soaking (when it has expanded fourfold) it is usually underfed as a conditioning feed.


At least 1kg and up to 2kg (dry weight, before soaking) can be fed per day to a 500kg horse for adding condition. One stubbs scoopful of soaked beet, the equivalent of about 200g dry weight, will not be enough to promote weight gain for most horses.


The amount of grass available should be considered, and supplementary forage offered in the field if necessary.


Source large tub trugs, tree pots (XXXL plant pots with helpful drainage holes) or invest in a hay hutch, or similar, to limit trampling and wastage and protect the pasture. Move these tubs around to help limit poaching.


Many horses lose weight during winter because they are not fed adequate amounts of forage. Plenty of moderate to good quality forage supplies good amounts of energy - contrary to popular belief - and also helps keep horses warm due to the way it is fermented in the gut.


But what if forage is just too expensive or too nutritious or there is just not enough of it?

This season’s forage

Grass needs water, light and nutrients to grow, and just when the dormant winter grass was trying to get going, there was a substantial shortage of water. Even when the rain came, the grass could not make up, as a result, final yields are down, generally by between 30 and 50 per cent.


The hay that was made early – May and June – in brilliant sunshine will be relatively high quality i.e. relatively high in energy, protein and possibly relatively low in fibre (compared to a later cut hay).


This hay will be clean and probably not need to be soaked, as most UK hay generally should be. However, it will be too nutritious for many horses and ponies, meaning that if they are fed enough to fulfil appetite; they will probably put on too much weight.


For good doers, lower quality forage will need to be sourced, and clean oat straw could be useful to replace some of the hay.


Straw is suitable to feed to horses providing it is clean and mould-free, and is introduced gradually (never put a field kept horse onto a new straw bed in bad weather - this is asking for colic), the horse has free access to water and has good dental health.


Hay is expected to rise in price by between 20 and 40 per cent, although these predictions do not take into account second cut and late cut meadow hays.


At the time of writing, the persistent rain is not doing haymaking any favours, and a period of dry weather is needed to allow harvesting of the rest of this year’s hay crop.


Nevertheless, merchants advise against panic buying, as this makes the situation worse as it artificially inflates prices.


Multi-vitamin and mineral supplements are a must in the following situations:


  • Horse on less than the full recommended amount of compound (bagged, branded) feed - check the actual sack and weigh how much is fed
  • Horses on no compound feed, eg those fed just forage, or those fed straights including cereals, sugar beet and/or alfalfa chaffs

For good doers, horses in little work and those who normally do not require the full recommended amount of compound feed, the 2010 early cut ‘super hay’ will not be appropriate and will need to be fed with care.


The problem is that limiting it to ensure weight gain is avoided could lead to fibre deficiency and long periods with nothing to eat, which results in gut disturbance could lead to behaviour problems.


In these cases, a lower quality forage should be sourced, for example, old hay from previous years - which should be soaked for respiratory health and to reduce calories – or clean straw, preferably oat (which tends to be the most palatable).

Soaking hay – the answer for good doers?

Soaking hay in water does reduce calories but not as reliably as many owners believe. Ideally the hay needs to be submerged loosely in a large quantity of water, and the soaking is more effective if the water is hot.


The end product will vary widely and the main determinant is the content of the original hay. Ideally have hay analysed (most feed companies can help) so the start point is known, and soak for at least several hours to reduce nutrients.

Hay and haylage alternatives

For owners struggling to find any forage, alternatives do exist, although most are expensive. Hay replacement chaffs, usually blends of chopped straw and quick dried alfalfa or grass with light coatings of oil and molasses to bind dust, can be used to replace forage weight for weight.


A typical 500kg horse would be expected to eat about 7-9kg (15-20lb) fresh weight hay (or a replacement) during overnight stabling.


Quick dried chopped grass or alfalfa (unmolassed) can be used to replace up to a third of the hay or haylage ration for horses in work, or if the hay or haylage is particularly poor in nutrients.


High fibre cubes with a fibre content of at least 18 per cent and starch under 10 per cent can also be used to replace some of the forage ration - ideally no more than a fifth. Ideally, these products should be fed in decanting balls or similar so they are not eaten too quickly.


Ideally long forage (unch-opped hay or haylage) should make up at least 1 per cent of bodyweight in dry matter per day (almost 6kg of average hay, or 7.5kg of average haylage). If the long forage is restricted to this amount, other feeds must be high fibre.

If forage is not enough

Only if forage does not maintain your horse’s weight do you need to feed a concentrate feed, which could be a compound feed or straights (including cereals, sugar beet and oilseeds such as linseed).


What you choose is up to personal preference, but do be sure to add a multivitamin and mineral supplements if you feed less than the full recommended amount of a compound, and take advice on correctly balancing a straights diet.

Dos and Don’ts


  • Do take care feeding early cut nutritious hay to good doers, horses in no or light work, laminitis prone horses and ponies or those who are already overweight
  • Do consider soaking hay to remove calories, but do consider the limitations and ensure the diet is balanced with adequate vitamins and minerals
  • Do consider using sugar beet pulp as an alternative to compounds, but feed an equivalent weight (before soaking)
  • Do feed a multivitamin and mineral supplement to horses who do not need the full recommended amount of compound feed


  • Don’t be tempted to feed mouldy forage – it can be very toxic to horses
  • Don’t cut back on forage without considering the fibre content of the rest of the diet, and consider how a stabled horse will pass his time without forage to chew
  • Don’t feed less than the full recommended amount of a compound feed – even low calorie – expecting it to balance your horse’s diet. It will not

About Clare MacLeod

Clare MacLeod MSc RNutr is an independent equine nutritionist who is registered with the Nutrition Society. Signed copies of her book ‘The Truth About Feeding Your Horse’, published by JA Allen, are available to order from her website:

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