Over the summer the UK experienced one of the hottest, driest summers on record, with soaring temperatures and a distinct lack of rain. This resulted in heat-burnt grass that was unable to grow.
The shortage of grass had a knock-on effect on the production of preserved forage, mainly hay and haylage, which we rely on to provide vital fibre and energy for our horses over the winter. Lisa Elliott, MSc – Equine Nutrition Solutions, discusses why horses need preserved forage, the problems that can occur when there’s a shortage and what we can feed as an alternative to keep them happy and healthy through the winter.
Why forage is vital
Horses have evolved to eat a continuous supply of fibrous feeds which supply significant levels of fibre for optimum digestive health like grass, hay, haylage and other fibrous plant types, which are collectively known as forage.
In the winter, when grass loses its nutrition, providing preserved forage like hay and haylage is vital to support work and condition and provide fundamental fibre throughout the chilly winter months.
While a major function of the fibre in forage is to provide energy for your horse in the form of Volatile fatty acids (VFA), which are released as a product of microbial fermentation. Also, fibre is pivotal to a healthy well-functioning digestive system and a healthy happy horse.
The Benefits of Fibre
- Plenty of good-quality fibre is key to microbial health and balance. These essential microbes thrive on it, and healthy, happy microbes means a healthy, happy horse.
- Fibre encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria and a variety of forage like haylage, and hay can help promote a diverse, stable microbial community for optimum health and condition.
- Hay and haylage provide complex fibre which helps promote beneficial bacteria, and in particular certain types of bacteria which can help promote hindgut lining health and integrity
- The fermentation of fibre by microbes in the hindgut produces heat, which in turn helps to keep your horse warm from the inside out during frosty winter weather.
- Fibre satisfies the horse’s psychological need to chew. Chewing produces saliva which acts as a buffer to stomach acid, helping to prevent gastric ulcers.
- Fibre forms a fibrous matt in the lower regions of the stomach preventing acid from splashing up onto the more sensitive upper regions, which can lead to gastric ulcers.
- Fibre binds water and when it is broken down this water is released building up a small reservoir of water in the horse’s gut, helping to keep him hydrated, which is essential in winter when horses are inclined to drink less.
- Fibre stimulates peristaltic contraction, which keeps the gut moving and expels gas, helping to prevent certain types of colic.
- Plenty of fibre will keep horses occupied, which is essential when horses are stabled for prolonged periods during the winter months
- B-vitamins such as Biotin are synthesised by the gut microbes from forage, so plenty of it will ensure a good supply of these essential vitamins for optimum coat and hoof health.
A lack of fibre
Fibre is so important for equine health and happiness that a shortage of hay and haylage could have significant implications for your horse’s health and wellbeing. Some issues associated with a lack of fibre include:
Colic – a lack of fibre moving through the gut means this movement could slow down and that increases the risk of food getting stuck or ‘impacted’ in the more ‘bottleneck’ areas of the digestive tract. Additionally, a lack of fibre can result in microbial imbalances and loss of beneficial fibre digesting microbes and a decrease in fibre digestion which again increases the risk of impaction.
Diarrhoea – low fibre can very often result in loose sloppy manure, which in-turn affects the whole dynamic of how the gut works and further decrease fibre digestion as well as causing fluid and electrolyte imbalances
Dehydration – a lack of fibre can contribute to dehydration because the water reserves that build up in the gut with ad-lib fibre are severely reduced. Ensuring horses are fully hydrated during winter is essential and a lack of fibre can negatively affect this.
Gastric Ulcers – plenty of fibre means chewing and the production of saliva which helps neutralise stomach acid, alongside the potential to form a fibre matt in the stomach to stop acid splashing against the less protected upper areas of the stomach. A low fibre diet doesn’t offer this protection and the potential for the development of ulcers will be increased.
Compromised Mental Wellbeing – chewing on fibre satisfies a horse’s psychological need to chew whilst also keeping them occupied. Hay or haylage shortages could mean significantly less fibre for your horse when stabled, and consequently they will spend much less time foraging and eating and become frustrated. This frustration can result in stress and could potentially lead to stereotypical behaviour such as cribbing and weaving.
Energy Deficiency – Fibre is a valuable source of energy for horses, and if fibre is lacking then the horse won’t be receiving sufficient energy for their needs. This is particularly important in winter when grass loses its nutrition. A lack of energy from a lack of forage will result in reduced weight and condition.
Vitamin Deficiency – the hindgut microbes that ferment fibre also produce several vitamins as a by-product of fermentation, including vitamin B1, Biotin and vitamin K. If horses aren’t getting enough fibre because of hay and haylage shortages, the microbes are unable to produce the levels of these vitamins they normally would, and a deficiency can lead to potential problems like loss of appetite and poor-quality hoof growth.
How much fibre does a horse need per day?
Fibre in the form of forage should always be the main consideration when feeding your horse and should be the best quality you can find so your horse can get maximum benefits. Ideally they need to eat 2-2.5% of their bodyweight (BW) in forage dry matter (DM) per day, depending on work and condition. Ideally horses should be fed ad-lib for optimum health and well-being.
Current recommendations for daily forage intake (Harris et al. 2017) are that a horse should receive a MINIMUM of 1.5% per of their body weight in forage DM per day. Ideally the 2.2.5% of bodyweight in forage DM should be provided from preserved forage during winter, even if your horse is out in a field.
How to increase daily fibre intake
If you are affected by a hay or haylage shortage this winter, there are some excellent ways you can still ensure you provide your horse with plenty of essential fibre during the chilly winter months.
Providing fibre rich grass chops and high fibre pellets like Coligone Fibre Cubes and Coligone Fibre BIO is ideal to boost fibre levels naturally where grass is lacking. They provide a great, digestible source of fibre and can be fed up to 2kg per day – helping to increase your horse’s fibre intake in a convenient, tasty form. Both Coligone Fibre Cubes and Coligone Fibre BIO are also packed with vitamins and minerals and provide 5% Coligone to nurture and support beneficial hindgut microbes for optimal digestive health and can be soaked into a nutritious mash, helping ensure you horse is fully hydrated.
Additionally, Coligone Balancer can help ensure your horse receives optimum levels of vitamins, minerals, and protein in the face of reduced levels of hay or haylage and to support optimum health and vitality throughout the winter season.
If you have any questions about creating the best diet for your horse and keeping your horse healthy through the right nutrition, please contact Coligone – 0333 0503785/07986 183616 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website for the full range. https://www.hbradshaws.co.uk/coligone-product-range/