Alfalfa is a perennial legume related to the pea and bean family. Contrary to popular belief alfalfa is not a new feed in the equine diet and has been cultivated for fodder for about 2000 years. Alfalfa was the principal fodder for the cavalry and chariot horses of the ancient Persians, Greeks and Romans and is still recognised today as an excellent feed for horses. It was probably native to western Asia and was introduced to Britain in the mid 17th Century. At the same time it was being cultivated in North America where it received the Moorish name of 'Alfalfa'. Alfalfa is also referred to as lucerne in other countries.
The alfalfa plant looks very different to grass when it is growing. Alfalfa has leaves similar to clover and forms a tall bushy plant reaching up to 1metre (3 ft) in height at harvest. Being a legume, alfalfa is able to take nitrogen from the air and converts it to protein with the aid of 'nitrogen fixing' microbes in its roots. It is no surprise then that alfalfa contains relatively high levels of quality protein and doesn’t need nitrate fertilizers which has environmental benefits too.
Alfalfa has deep penetrating roots which can reach over 3m long. Minerals and trace elements taken up via these roots are needed for the plant’s survival and are also passed on in a natural and 'bio-available' form to the horse.
Key Benefits of Alfalfa
Energy for Work
Fibre is often perceived to just provide bulk and not contribute anything of much nutritional value. This couldn’t be further from the truth for alfalfa as it provides lots of valuable nutrients and also provides energy at a level that can meet the requirements of horses in light to moderate work. This has huge benefits as to be able to meet the energy requirements without having to use cereals helps to reduce the risk of digestive upsets such as colic and laminitis and should hopefully avoid over-excitable behaviour too.
Low Starch and Sugar Content
Alfalfa has a very low content of both starch and water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC) such as sugars and fructans. When alfalfa is combined with a low sugar coating to create Alfa-A Lite and Hi-Fi Lite, the overall WSC level is very low which is why both feeds are approved by The Laminitis Trust. Combining alfalfa with oil as in Alfa-A Oil, produces a feed that is ideal for horses with ERS (otherwise known as azoturia, tying up etc) which research indicates benefit from a low sugar and starch diet.
A Source of Quality Protein
Protein has historically been thought to be the cause of a number of problems but research has shown that this is not the case and in fact, high starch or sugar diets are often the culprits. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids some of which must be supplied in the diet which are known as 'essential'. Although all horses need protein, breeding and youngstock have the greatest requirements, particularly for the essential amino acids. In fact, a deficiency of essential amino acids can limit growth and development.
Adult horses also require protein, particularly essential amino acids for developing muscle tone and for muscle function. Alfalfa is ideal for helping to build good top line and when combined with oil as in Alfa-A Oil, provides the same amount of energy as a conditioning mix. As alfalfa and oil are both slow release energy sources, Alfa-A Oil makes an ideal feed for developing youngsters where condition is needed but excuses for bucking aren't!
Most people are aware of the importance of calcium for the structural integrity of bone and therefore, why it is very important in the diet of breeding and youngstock. It is also an important component of hoof horn and research by the Royal Dick Vet School showed that including alfalfa in the diet helped to improve the quantity and quality of hoof growth.
Alfalfa contains nearly three times as much calcium as grass and as it is a plant, the calcium it contains is much more available to the horse than that from inorganic sources such as limestone flour which many supplements are based on. It is widely known that cereals are low in calcium and high in phosphorous and so alfalfa is a great way of counteracting this imbalance and achieving the ideal ratio of 2:1 in the total diet. For example, 1kg of alfalfa contains enough calcium to compensate for the deficiency in 2kgs of oats.
Wide Range of Vitamins
Alfalfa is rich in Vitamins A and E and the B vitamins Thiamin, Riboflavin, Pantothenic acid, Biotin and Folic acid. Alfalfa also contains valuable levels of the trace mineral cobalt that enables the horse to synthesise vitamin B12 which is involved in iron absorption and utilisation.
Alfalfa as a Buffer
Recent research commissioned by Dengie and carried out at the Royal Dick Vet School in Edinburgh, investigated the buffering (neutralising) capabilities of alfalfa. The acidity of the gut needs to be kept within certain parameters in order to keep the gut healthy. It is known that feeding cereals increases acidity in the gut and this is linked to problems such as gastric ulcers, colic and laminitis. The study found that feeding between 25 and 50% of the diet as alfalfa helped to counteract the negative effects of cereals.