Can alfalfa hay be fed to pigs? Yes, however the amount that can be included in the diet depends on the nutritional quality of the alfalfa hay as well as the age and physiological status of the pigs. Unlike ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, and goats) that have four-chambered stomachs which are efficient fermentation vats, pigs are monogastric animals that have simple, one-chambered stomachs that do not efficiently digest diets that contain high percentages of roughage or fiber. In order to meet dietary energy requirements, pigs are generally fed diets that contain mostly cereal grains such as corn, barley or wheat. While high-quality alfalfa hay is a good protein source, the low digestible energy content of alfalfa hay compared to cereal grains limits its use in many swine diets. In addition, alfalfa hay contains several anti-nutritional factors, such as saponins and tannins that reduce the growth rate of young pigs. Therefore, feeding alfalfa hay to weaned and growing pigs is generally not recommended.
However, because the digestive system of sows is fully developed and the capacity and the microbial community of the sow’s hindgut can effectively digest some fiber, alfalfa hay can be included in diets fed to sows. Alfalfa hay is most often ground into alfalfa meal for use in pig diets because the smaller particle size improves digestibility. Including alfalfa meal in the gestating sow diet is ideal because it adds bulk but not calories. Typically, gestating sows are limit-fed in order to minimize excessive body weight gain during pregnancy. Sows that are limit-fed often become frustrated and exhibit stereotypical behavior (1). Providing a high-fiber diet during gestation allows adequate intake without resulting in excessive body weight gain. After farrowing, sows are fed diets that contain more calories and are allowed to eat all that they can consume in order to maximize milk production for optimal piglet growth. However, appetites of sows that are limit-fed during pregnancy often do not increase after farrowing and sows mobilize body fat to meet the energy requirements of lactation. Research suggests that feeding sows a high-fiber diet during gestation may lead to higher feed intake and less body weight loss during lactation (1).
But how much alfalfa meal can be included in gestation diets? In a research study, sows fed 50% alfalfa meal during gestation gained less weight during pregnancy than sows fed 5% alfalfa (2). Results indicated that sows can tolerate up to 50% alfalfa without adversely affecting the number of piglets born or birth weights (2). Feeding more than 50% alfalfa meal, especially during late gestation may not meet energy requirements and could result in lower piglet birth weights (2).
Alfalfa provides bulk in gestating sow diets without adding calories. Since the nutritional quality of alfalfa hay is variable, it should be tested for actual chemical composition. Best results are obtained when alfalfa is included at less than 50% of the gestation diet. However, this amount may be different depending on other ingredients that you are feeding your pregnant sows. Consult with an animal nutritionist for a properly balanced gestation diet.
Do you feed your pigs Alfalfa? What are some things you look for in your pigs daily diet? Share with us in the comment section.
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(1) Quesnel, H. M.-C. Meunier-Salaün, A. Hamard, R. Guillemet, M. Etienne, C. Farmer, J.-Y. Dourmad, and M.-C. Père. 2009. Dietary fiber for pregnant sows: Influence on sow physiology and performance during lactation. J. Anim. Sci. 87:532-543.
(2) Calvert, C.C., N.C. Steele, and R.W. Rosebrough. 1985. Digestibility of fiber components and reproductive performance of sows fed high levels of alfalfa meal. J. Anim. Sci. 61:595-602.