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Why is Forage So Important For Healthy Horses

In the past few years of drought and challenging growing seasons, the price of feed has skyrocketed. This has presented a major challenge for owners and managers of both horses and other livestock, given their innate need to consume forage on a daily basis. But what is forage, and why is it important to the healthy horse?

Two horses eating from a hay feeder

Forage is defined as “…hays, pastures and other forms of plants fed to animals that are relatively high in fiber as compared to grain…” ( Forage makes up the vast majority of a horse’s diet in the wild, and should make up at least 50% of a horse’s daily intake, or 1.5%-3.5% of a horse’s body weight depending on the production stage of the animal (growth, lactation etc.) Forage is critical for many reasons, with two important ones being digestive tract health, and horse behavior.

The equine digestive tract is made up of the mouth and teeth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and hindgut including the cecum, large colon and small colon. The stomach itself is actually relatively small, making up on 9% of the capacity of the entire tract, and feed only stays in the stomach for roughly 20 minutes before moving into the intestine. Large stem forage in the form of hay and pasture will slow the rate of passage of digestive matter, allowing for more complete and efficient digestion. Forage will also increase dry matter intake, and subsequently water intake. Finally, research has suggested that horses fed high fiber diets have fewer instances of gastric ulcers.

Forage is also necessary in the equine diet from a behavioral perspective. Horses have an innate need to chew, and if there is not sufficient quality forage available they are more inclined to chew on wood or tree bark, other horse’s tails, or to consume toxic plants that they would otherwise ignore.

Be sure to check out this webcast: Poisonous Plants Speaker: Dr. Krishona Martinson | University of Minnesota Summary: This webcast will cover the key to preventing problems with poisonous plants through proper identification and avoidance of these plants. Watch now

Horse owners should recognize the importance of forage in the form of hay or good quality pasture in keeping healthy horses. Pasture management plans and rotational grazing should be used to maintain forage quality during the summer. Further, planning for the upcoming winter feed supply during the summer months is key to keeping costs manageable, and the use of alternative forages such as complete feeds (over 16% fiber), and hay cubes may also extend the supply if forage is scarce.

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