Alfalfa for Horses – Is It a Wise Choice?

Sep 29, 2018

Nothing smells better than breaking open a fresh bale of alfalfa hay; so green and fragrant you can’t blame your horse for loving the taste. Horses have been enjoying the palatability of alfalfa for thousands of years. This legume was first grown in the Middle East hundreds of years B.C. and routinely fed to all sorts of livestock, including army horses. But is this beautiful hay appropriate to feed to horses? And if so, how?

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What is Alfalfa?

Alfalfa, like clover, is not a grass hay. Instead, this is a legume – a member of the pea family. Like grass hays, it is grown in fields and then cut, dried, and baled for storage; however, that’s pretty much where the similarity ends.

Thunder Acres Premium Alfalfa Hay for Pets is intensely nutrient-dense, far more so than the average grass hay. For a start, alfalfa contains almost twice as much protein as grass hay – as much as 15%, which is more protein than most concentrate mixes offer. It’s also higher in calories and lower in fiber than grass hay. Moreover, alfalfa is packed with minerals, particularly calcium. This mineral is abundantly present, but phosphorus – which must be carefully balanced with calcium – is only present in small quantities.Thunder Acres Premium Alfalfa Hay for Pets

Thunder Acres Premium Alfalfa Hay for Pets 

Alfalfa Pros

The millions of horsemen who have been feeding alfalfa to horses for era after era haven’t all been wrong. In many ways, this hay is an excellent addition to the equine diet.

Let’s start with the obvious: palatability. Whether it’s in the form of hay, chaff, or pellets, alfalfa is one of the sweetest treats you can offer your horse. They will consume vast amounts of this hay, which makes it ideal for picky eaters or sick horses. Many a poorly horse has been tempted into eating by a flake of alfalfa or, even better, a handful of soaked pellets. And its high nutritional value makes this a useful feed to carry a sick horse with a diminished appetite through its illness.

The protein so abundantly present in alfalfa is an essential nutrient and fairly digestible in this hay. Protein is essential for growth and healing; it’s the building blocks of the body, and many important components of your horse’s metabolism – including DNA and enzymes – consist of protein. Especially for growing, pregnant, high-performance, or lactating horses, alfalfa can provide plenty of this nutrient to allow the horse to grow, develop muscle tone, and repair tissues damaged by hard work.

Calcium is another important nutrient for bone development. If used to appropriately balance a diet, it can be useful in alfalfa.

Alfalfa Cons

Many of the features that make alfalfa so powerful, however, can also cause problems. While it may seem like a good thing that this hay is so high in calories and low in fiber, in fact, for the equine digestive tract, it’s a disadvantage. Horses need vast amounts of fiber in order to allow the digestive system to function properly. If horses are fed alfalfa ad lib, as grass hays are fed, they will consume vast amounts of nutrients without the appropriate balance of fiber – meaning that the digestive system can’t effectively absorb the nutrients the horse is ingesting. This may cause gas colics and digestive upsets, especially causing imbalances of the horse’s intestinal microflora.

The calcium:phosphorus (Ca:P) ratio is another major problem in the feeding of alfalfa. In fact, alfalfa contains so much calcium that it can actually hinder the horse’s ability to metabolize calcium. When the horse’s body is using a lot of calcium – such as during strenuous work, especially endurance riding – the body is capable of drawing calcium from the bones. When blood calcium is too high as a result of eating too much alfalfa, this mechanism is hindered, and the horse may actually become calcium deficient. The low phosphorus in alfalfa is also a major concern; calcium and phosphorus work together to develop the horse’s bones, and where phosphorus is inadequate, calcium can’t do its job.

Even the high protein levels of alfalfa can become problematic if poorly managed. Alfalfa is about 15% protein; to put that into perspective, the average adult horse in light to moderate work only needs 10% protein in its diet. A horse being fed a diet of alfalfa and a typical concentrate mix containing 12% protein is consuming way too much protein. While most horses simply expel excess protein in the urine as ammonia, horses with liver or kidney problems will not be able to metabolize all this protein. And even if they do, the high levels of ammonia in the urine can cause all sorts of problems – like eye and respiratory issues from standing in stables with urine-soaked bedding.

What's the Solution?

So should alfalfa never be fed to horses? No. This hay is still a good feed – it just has to be balanced accordingly.

Alfalfa should never be fed as the horse’s main source of roughage. Standlee Hay Company Timothy Bale should still make up the bulk of every horse’s diet, and should be fed ad lib.

Standlee Hay Company Timothy Bale, 50 lb

Standlee Hay Company Timothy Bale

However, adding a bit of alfalfa to the diet – a flake or so once or twice a day – can benefit your horse greatly. Especially where the grass hay is low in protein, alfalfa can help boost the protein content of your horse’s diet to an appropriate level. Horses being fed large quantities of plain grains such as Bluebonnet Feeds Race Horse Whole Oats or wheat bran will probably be consuming way too much phosphorus; the addition of alfalfa will balance out the Ca:P ratio to healthy proportions.

Bluebonnet Feeds Race Horse Whole Oats

Bluebonnet Feeds Race Horse Whole Oats

Especially in its pelleted form like Standlee Hay Company Premium Alfalfa Pellet, alfalfa is an excellent food for tempting sick horses. Alfalfa pellets sometimes also contain a vitamin/mineral mix that balances out that pesky Ca:P, so consult the label on the feed bag to be sure.

Standlee Hay Company Premium Alfalfa Pellet, 40 lb

Standlee Hay Company Premium Alfalfa Pellet

Conclusion

Alfalfa is still an excellent food for horses; however, it should not simply be added to the diet willy-nilly, but in consultation with a good equine nutritionist to ensure your horse can benefit from all the age-old goodness of this leafy legume.

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