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 Pros

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.

Al­falfa Cons

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.drkel­, 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.

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