How to Safely Make Feed Changes

Horse owners often hear “make feed changes gradually” but what does that really mean? The goal is to minimize digestive disorders which translates to allowing the gut’s bacteria population to acclimate to the feed changes. Horses are continuous grazers and depend on the gut’s microbial population to process the fiber portion of the diet and any other feed components that escape enzymatic digestion in the foregut.

Changes in types of hay such as alfalfa to grass, grass to alfalfa or grass to grass will determine the rate of change.

GRASS HAY – preferred forage for horses.

  • Horses are continuous grazers, and their gut design is based on consuming a grass forage for several hours of the day.
  • Bermuda, Orchard, Timothy, and KY Bluegrass are traditional grass forages and have similar content with fiber, protein, and starch.
  • There are plant maturity differences with grass forages. Conservative feed changes are still encouraged; daily changes of 1 -2 lbs. per day.
  • Teff is a warm-season annual grass and recently has been popular with horse owners depending on availability. Teff hay is higher protein and lower sugars than traditional grass forages; recommendations for changing is ½ – 1 ½ lbs. per day.

ALFALFA HAY – alfalfa hay (bale, cube, or pellet) should NOT be more than 50% of the total forage consumed per day.

  • 100% alfalfa is higher energy, higher protein, and lower fiber than grass hay. Fiber is critical to microbial health. Depending on the region and cutting, alfalfa can provide up to 20% less dietary crude fiber when compared to a typical grass hay.
  • Changing alfalfa to grass hay or grass to alfalfa hay the recommendation is ½ – 1 lb. changeover per day; if adding 1 lb. then remove 1 lb. of the hay that is being replaced.

CEREAL GRAIN HAY – Cereal grain hays should NOT be more than 50% of the total forage consumed per day.

  • Any cereal grain hay (oat, barley, wheat) or a combination will vary in the content of the starchy grains. The importance of hay is supplying fiber. The grain seed heads portion creates a sugar/starch variable in the hay amount consumed. Horses can be selective in picking out the seed head and leaving the stems which are the important fiber potion of the hay.
  • Changes with cereal grain hay, the recommendation is ½ – 1 lb. changeover per day; if adding 1 lb. then remove 1 lb. of the hay that is being replaced.

PROCESSED FORAGES (PELLET or CUBES) – should NOT be more 50% of the total forage consumed per day.

  • Horses drink less water with processed hay compared to long-stem (bale) hay. Water is important in moving contents of the gut through the digestive tract, thus the importance of feeding long-stem hay.
  • Pellets and cubes are usually fed in tubs or troughs that reduce loss as compared to hay flakes fed in racks or on the ground.
  • Processed forages are still hay so the feeding recommendations for changes are the same for the respective baled hay

CONCENTRATES – Daily changes should be approximately ¼ – ½ lb. per day.

  • Balance formulas, commercial mixes, grains, grain base mixes, commodities (oats, corn, barley, wheat bran, etc.) vary greatly in protein, fat, sugar/starch, and fiber content. This variation encourages patience for a slow change – the only cost is time.
  • In some circumstances with high starch, high protein, and/or high fat concentrates, the amounts fed will require changes on an every-other-day basis.