Don’t Believe the Myths – Alfalfa is an Ideal Hay for Horses
Alfalfa hay is the most important legume forage crop grown in the United States. Alfalfa hay is readily available - it is grown and sold in every state in the U.S. The high feeding value of alfalfa hay makes it an ideal feed for horses and livestock. It also improves the soil and alfalfa sprouts can even be used as a food source for human consumption.
Normally, alfalfa hay is fed as baled hay. However, it can also be fed as chopped hay, cubes, or pellets. Alfalfa hay is a very digestible feed source that is high in protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. It is clear that the nutritional value of quality alfalfa hay make it a valuable addition to equine diets. And, let’s face it - horses love the taste of alfalfa hay!
The use of alfalfa hay in horse diets is usually touted; however, negative and incorrect information is out there. We will attempt to dispel some of those myths.
Myth: The high level of protein in alfalfa hay will damage a horse’s kidneys.
Reality: Feeding a lot of alfalfa hay will provide protein in excess of a horse’s protein requirement, especially to mature horses that are idle or are worked lightly. Normal healthy horses can metabolize the protein in alfalfa hay without damaging their kidneys. The amino acids that make up protein are broken down into the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are burned up for energy, and any excess nitrogen is excreted in the urine. Horses that are fed diets that contain high levels of protein may drink more water and urinate more than horses that are fed lower protein diets.
Myth: Alfalfa is too rich for horses.
Reality: It is true that alfalfa contains more nutrients than most other hays. However, high quality pasture often has higher calories and protein than alfalfa hay. You must match the nutrient needs of your horses with the nutrient content of hay. Early-maturity alfalfa hay is very nutrient dense and should only be fed to broodmares and growing horses. Alfalfa hay cut at later stages of maturity would be more suitable as feed for mature horses with lower nutrient requirements.
Myth: Alfalfa hay contains too much calcium, especially for growing horses.
Reality: Horses have been fed more than five times the calcium requirement with no detrimental effects as long as the phosphorus level is adequate. Nutritionists recommend a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio between 1:1 and 2:1.
Myth: Alfalfa hay that has been stored for a year or more has no nutritional value.
Reality: This is absolutely not true as long as alfalfa hay has been stored in a dry environment. Energy, protein, and minerals change very little during storage. However, vitamin A does decrease when hay is stored. In fact, most vitamin A is lost right after harvest. The dry matter of hay will increase with storage. Hay that is quite dry will become brittle and have higher incidence of leaf shatter, which may increase wastage during feeding.
Misconceptions about alfalfa hay exist, but a little extra knowledge about horse nutrition can help disprove the myths and expose the realities.
Shewmaker, G.E., D. Undersander, L.M. Lawrence, and G.D. Lacefield. Alfalfa. The high-quality hay for horses. National Alfalfa Alliance, Kennewick, WA.