Forage Replacers

Eventing Worldwide speaks to Dr Tom Shurlock about forage replacers and the need for them this winter after the hot drought conditions we’ve had this summer.

This winter with a predicted shortfall of hay and haylage, especially second cut hay, it is likely most horse owners will be seeking a forage replacer to help boost fibre and enhance the forage they have.

In today’s world we have a range of different breeds from miniatures to shires with different requirements for different lifestyles, from low energy maintenance of the pony in a pasture to the intense expenditure of the racehorse or the sustained expenditure of endurance riding, and all these must be processed by the gut – which has not changed at all! The gut is still designed to process poor quality forage.

The modern horse may not have access to fresh grass, certainly not 24/7, and grass may not even be the main forage source. In the UK, hay, haylage and bagged forage usually supply the forage portion of the diet, alongside varying amounts of grass.
In winter when turnout is restricted and the quality of the grazing decreases, many horse owners introduce a forage replacer to keep bulk fibre levels high for a healthy gut and to meet their inherent needs. At other times of the year, when some horses may need their grass intake restricting (e.g. equines prone to laminitis), forage replacers can also be used as a ‘low risk’ forage source.

We are increasingly becoming aware of the need to supply fibre as the main source of energy as it has benefits, both physical and physiological, that are not automatically provided by other sources, and the best source of fibre is still forage. It is also usually the cheapest option and so makes sense to optimise its use. Mediating this fibre uptake is becoming the role of the forage replacer/alternative. And this is done in one of three ways;
Forage Dilution

An option for horses that require a low energy diet. These forage replacers are usually built around chaff or straw that provide high levels of cellulose which is broken down very slowly in the hindgut and helps offset the faster fermentation of grass or hay. They are traditionally low in protein and sugars, both of which can reach surprisingly high levels in grass.

Forage Extension
Supplying a fibre product that is similar in profile to a reasonable quality hay or grass can be used to even out the variations that are present in the forage, whether it is changes in fibre content and profile, protein or sugars. The basic forage is suitably matched to the horse and its lifestyle, all we are doing is ensuring consistency of the product and, in extreme cases where our forage runs out, providing a short-term alternative to that forage.

Forage Enhancement
For the more active horse, forage alone is not sufficient to provide all the nutrients required. Horse owners may prefer not to rely too much on traditional hard feeds for a variety of reasons and so choose forage enhancement. These products are based upon super fibres, which really mean sources high in soluble fibres, pectins and hemicelluloses, and low in cellulose and lignified material. Generally, these are usually beet pulp, soya hulls and oat fibres, though alfalfa can be another source. By providing highly fermentable fibre sources the daily energy intake of an active horse can be significantly increased without resorting to starchy feeds.

All forage replacers should provide extra fibre without extra starch/sugars and without high levels of protein. Bearing in mind that grass, depending on the time of year, can have on a dry basis up to 25% protein and 30% sugars, diluting these levels with good quality fibre can offset potential nutritional problems of oversupply.

Maybe ‘forage replacement’ is not always necessary, but ‘forage management’ certainly is.

With thanks to British Horse Feeds for their help with this article. Dr Tom Shurlock is a consultant nutritionist for British Horse Feeds.

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