Hoof Nutrition Intelligence Hoof Nutrition Intelligence is a twice-a-month web segment that is designed to add to the education of footcare professionals when it comes to effectively feeding the hoof. The goal of this web-exclusive feature is to zero in on specific areas of hoof nutrition and avoid broad-based articles that simply look at the overall equine feeding situation.

Below you will find Part 2 of the latest question and answer installment that you can share with your footcare clients.

Q: When feeding alfalfa to insulin resistant horses, is there any difference between bales, cubes and pellets?

By Sylvia Kornherr, E.P.T., APFI, ESP 

A: With insulin deregulated horses, alfalfa, like any other forage should be lab analyzed to understand its composition and to balance it with the complete diet plan.

Alfalfa’s protein, sugars and starches will vary based on harvesting techniques, seasonal timing, weather, soil fertility and the maturity of plant bloom when cut. Fluctuations in quality may be due to the stage of plant bloom at the time of cutting —  early bloom (20% plus crude protein), mid bloom or late bloom (generally yielding 15% crude protein.)

Common difficulties with baling alfalfa under less than ideal conditions include under-curing, high moisture level, second heat-fermentation and combinations that can erode nutrient quality, promote dust, mold and protein-denaturing.

For these reasons, I tend to migrate toward feeding alfalfa cubes and pellets. This is due to their label analysis consistency, offering a dust and mold free product and requiring minimal storage space compared to bales. Alfalfa cubes and pellets typically provide 15% crude protein with highly digestible fiber for an energy source along with minimal sugar and starch levels when compared with grass hays.

You can ask the feed manufacturer for a more detailed analysis for the exact levels of sugars and starches or conduct your own analysis by sending samples to a reputable lab. Testing can be economical if you are buying product in large quantities with the same lot batch number. It’s a smart way to add a more balanced form of missing amino acids that are lacking from low-quality protein hays (generally mixed-grass hays) along with a ration balancer. 

Conversely, grass hays are significantly higher in sugars, starches and fructans, while considerably lower in crude protein and digestible fiber.

While alfalfa bales, cubes and pellets can be a nutritious source of forage, the forage’s higher digestibility translates into more calories on a weight-to-weight basis when compared with grass hays. For the easy keeper and metabolic horse, this can be problematic as excess caloric intake is not their friend when they are already combating obesity issues that exacerbate fatty deposits and a predisposition to laminitis.

For this reason, alfalfa should be fed by weight rather than flakes, biscuits or offering free access to hay bales. As a supplemental fiber source, cubes and pellets can be easily measured out precisely vs. feeding flakes of alfalfa hay.

Reducing fiber intake due to the efficiency of nutrient availability in alfalfa may cause emotional chew time distress concerns. These are common concerns that include feeding only once or twice daily with reduced fiber intake. 

I like to combine a feeding program that offers lower amounts of grass hay (approximately 1% of the horse’s desired weight) to control sugar, starch and fructan intake. Supplemental fiber of up to 3% of a horse’s body weight can be sourced from a quality alfalfa cube or pellet in order to make up any shortfall in total fiber intake.

Chew time is somewhat extended when using cubes vs. pellets, but ultimately the best remedy is to divvy up the total day’s ration into at least three feeds per day, and ideally four or five meals with no more than 8 hours between each meal. In our experience, this seems to keep digestive upsets at bay, tends to help regulate circulating blood glucose and insulin levels within more normalized ranges and satisfies the horse’s chewing instincts.

Current research is looking into the connections that are linking hind gut microbial shifts to dangerous chronic systemic inflammatory response and inflammatory cytokine markers that are found in lamellar tissue. Transient starch, sugar and fructan from grass forages that move into the large intestine offer a food source for non-beneficial bacteria which proliferate and disrupt the delicate ecosystem while contributing to these microbial shifts and inflammatory responses.

Another good way to keep carbohydrate levels low is through controlling grass hay intake and supplementing with alfalfa. The alfalfa also serves as a way to reduce stomach acid splash and its higher calcium and protein content contribute toward a superior buffer to mitigate stomach ulceration.

Whether one feeds alfalfa in the form of bales, cubes or pellets, there are many benefits for the metabolic horse. There are also benefits for the non-metabolic horse when alfalfa is analyzed and balanced for the entire diet plan.

Sylvia Kornherr is a farrier, nutritionist, instructor and the owner of Equine Podiatry Creative Solutions in Almonte, Ontario.


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Click here to read part 1 of the Jan. 15, 2020 installment of Hoof Nutrition Intelligence:  What do the rings and ridges I’ve seen on some hooves mean?

Click here to read more installments of Hoof Nutrition Intelligence.