Equines and Alfalfa: Fact and Fiction
For most farmers and horse owners, deciding whether or not to feed their horses alfalfa is a tough row to hoe. Although alfalfa is a high quality horse feed, so many myths surround it that horse owners either underutilize or misuse it.
Ultimately, alfalfa can be a preferred forage for horses because it digests easily, is high in fiber and contains many essential nutrients. It is characterized by high protein, phosphorus, and calcium levels. A firm understanding of alfalfa myths and the truths behind them will help horse owners make informed decisions about what to feed their brood.
Myth: Alfalfa is too rich for my horse’s diet.
Truth: Alfalfa is an excellent source of protein that easily can be added to almost any horse’s feeding regimen. But the hay’s high protein level has led many owners to believe it’s too nutrient-rich for their horses. In reality, alfalfa is lower in many nutrients than other fresh-growing pasture grasses, which constitute the majority of most equine diets.
As with any feed, nutrient content of hay should be matched to the dietary needs of each horse. Protein is essential to tissue growth, generally at 8 to 10 percent in the diet of a healthy adult horse. Higher levels are important for lactating mares and young, growing foals.
Both foals and broodmares can benefit from young alfalfa. Early maturity alfalfa is soft, leafy, palatable and highly rich in nutrients. As the plant matures, however, it grows thick and woody, and its nutritional value and palatability decrease.
Mid- to late-maturity alfalfa is more suitable for horses used for light recreation, and they can meet most of their nutrient requirements on a diet of this plant.
For adult horses, an alfalfa-grass mixture may prove to be the ideal solution. This combination provides a horse with all the nutrients of alfalfa while balancing calcium and protein intake to ensure the horse’s gut is filled with enough bulk.
Myth: My horses will get kidney damage from consuming alfalfa.
Truth: While it’s true that alfalfa may provide more protein than healthy and low-activity horses need, there’s no evidence suggesting a moderate excess of protein is detrimental to equine health.
Protein is composed of amino acids containing hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. When horses eat more protein than they need, they burn up the hydrogen, oxygen and carbon as energy, and the excess nitrogen is excreted in urine.
Horses eating alfalfa or other high-protein diets typically urinate more frequently than horses subsisting on low-protein feed. But this doesn’t mean a horse’s kidneys will be damaged due to frequent urination. The high protein in alfalfa will only provoke kidney dysfunction if a horse has a pre-existing kidney disease.
To promote regular urination in horses feeding on alfalfa, provide continuous access to water so they can flush excess nitrogen from the body. Horses fed alfalfa with only limited access to water may produce thick, brown urine, a sign that the kidneys are not at optimal health. Also, if you notice excessive urine or anammonia smell in your barn, you may want to cut back on alfalfa to decrease protein intake.
…Myths and facts to be continued next issue…
Dennis Skibo is the owner and president of Pequea Machine Inc., New Holland, Pa, a manufacturer of equipment for hay and forage management, manure spreaders and other Ag. related products.