Is Alfalfa a Wise Choice?
Alfalfa isn’t a “perfect” feed, but it can be a good staple in your traveling horse’s diet. Here are alfalfa’s pros and cons.
FFew things create more arguments and opinions when it comes to feeding horses than whether alfalfa should be a part of the equine diet. Some say there’s nothing better. Others view it as a kind of poison. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. A flake of alfalfa hay can help keep your traveling horse happy both inside and outside your trailer, so the more you know about this feeding option, the better you can keep him healthy. Here, I’ll explain some of the pros and cons of alfalfa, and explore some myths.
Alfalfa has its advantages. For one, horses love it! Give a horse the opportunity to choose among flakes of all-grass hay, a grass-alfalfa mix, and all alfalfa, chances are, he’ll chow down the alfalfa flake first. Alfalfa is tasty to horses.
Alfalfa has lower indigestible fiber than grass hays. High-quality (“dairy”) alfalfa supplies 20 percent to 25 percent more calories per pound than grass hays, although the difference is much smaller for more mature cuts of alfalfa.
Heavily pregnant or lactating mares, and young, rapidly growing horses, benefit from alfalfa’s high protein content. Alfalfa is also a rich source of calcium.
Cubed and pelleted alfalfa tends to be very high quality. It’s harvested before it becomes too mature so that the cubes and pellets hold together well. The major quality issue to be concerned with is overheating during processing, which damages the protein. Cubes and pellets should be green on the outside, not brown or black.
There are also downsides to feeding alfalfa. Insulin-resistant horses prone to lamini- tis may be sensitive to alfalfa. The cause isn’t entirely clear, but it may be related to alfalfa having more sugar in the form of glucose, and higher starch.
Alfalfa’s high calcium content causes an imbalanced calcium/phosphorus ratio if not corrected by other feeds or supplements. Most adult horses seem to tolerate this, but it’s not ideal for pregnant mares and growing horses.
The high calcium also causes hormonal shifts that make it difficult for a horse to rapidly mobilize calcium from bone stores in times of need. This can cause “thumps” or muscular problems in horses working hard, or weakness and muscular problems in mares when they first start to produce milk.
Due to alfalfa’s high protein content, excess protein will be burned as a fuel and the waste is eliminated in the urine as urea, which is converted to ammonia. Horses will drink more, leading to wetter and smellier stalls.
Alfalfa can be trickier to cure and bale than grass hays. It needs a low enough moisture level so that it doesn’t mold, without being put up so dry that all its leaves shatter and fall off.
Grazing on an alfalfa pasture requires the same precautions as feeding alfalfa hay, plus some additional considerations. For example, digestive upsets may be an even bigger problem, especially in the spring and fall when wide temperature swings can lead to rapid changes in the composition of the plant.
And unlimited access to such a highly palatable food as alfalfa may lead to significant weight gain. Having an alfalfa-grass mixed pasture may not help much, because there’s a good chance that your horse will seek out and eat the alfalfa first, exclusively.
Alfalfa is prone to have more fines (broken, crumbled leaves that fall out when you open the bale). Since this is where the bulk
of the nutrition is, this can be a considerable loss. Try putting your alfalfa bale on an empty feed bag before you open it, and feed the small pieces that fall out in the feed trough or bucket.
If your horse has respiratory sensitivities, you can mix fines into a meal or wet them down slightly. But note that, in general, these particles are much too large for your horse to actually inhale into his lungs.
High-alfalfa/low-grain diets have been linked to the formation of enteroliths — stone-like formations in a horse’s intestinal tract, which can cause colic and may need to be surgically removed.
Striking a Balance
While alfalfa isn’t a complete, “whole” food for horses, you don’t have to avoid it, either — if you make it a point to balance your horse’s diet so he’s getting everything he needs in the right amounts.
If your horse needs extra calcium or protein in his diet, alfalfa is an excellent natural source of those nutrients. Alfalfa is often a valuable addition to the diet of sick or senior horses, because of its taste appeal, higher digestibility, and the fact that it’s easier to chew.
In many areas of the country, alfalfa is more readily available than grass hays and very reasonably priced. If you use alfalfa as your sole hay type, be sure to get advice from a qualified equine nutritionist on how to properly balance your feeding program. TTR Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD (www.drkellon.com), is a staff veterinarian for Uckele Health and Nutrition, Inc., and is the owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions, a nutritional consulting firm. Dr. Kellon completed her internship and residency in Large Animal Medicine and Surgery at the renowned University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center. She’s the author of Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals.
CLIXPHOTO.COM Feeding your horse alfalfa has its pros and cons. In many areas of the country, alfalfa is more readily available than grass hays and reasonably priced — and horses love it.
HEIDI MELOCCO PHOTO A flake of hay can help keep your traveling horse relaxed and happy inside or outside your trailer. But know the pros and cons before you go.