The benefits of alfalfa based horse feed

We all know that fibre is good for horses, but is all fibre the same? You might be surprised to learn that it isn’t. There are certain types of fibre that have additional benefits other than promoting good gut health and alfalfa is certainly one of them.

Alfalfa provides energy for work

Fibre is often perceived to provide bulk yet possesses very little nutritional value. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth because alfalfa provides lots of valuable nutrients and energy at a level that can meet the requirements of horses in light to moderate work. Alfa-A Original, for example, contains as much energy as a cool mix. This has huge benefits because meeting the energy requirements without having to use cereals helps to reduce the risk of digestive upsets such as colic and laminitis, and should avoid over-excitable behaviour, too.

Alfalfa has low starch and sugar content

Alfalfa has a very low starch and sugar content. When alfalfa is combined with cereal straw and a light oil coating, such as found in Hi-Fi Molasses Free, the overall sugar level is very low at about 2.5% – that’s about a quarter of the sugar found in a typical grass hay. Combining alfalfa with oil, such as in Alfa-A Oil, produces a feed with 12.5MJ DE per kg, which is equivalent to a conditioning mix but with 10 times less starch!

Alfalfa is a good 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 because high starch or sugar diets are most often the culprits.

Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Some must be supplied in the diet and are known as ‘essential’. Although all horses need protein, breeding and youngstock have the greatest requirements, particularly for 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 muscle function.

As a legume, Alfalfa is able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to protein. It has a better amino acid and protein content than grass and is the ideal feed for breeding and youngstock, as well as performance horses.

Alfalfa contains nearly three times as much Calcium as grass

Most people are aware of the importance of calcium for the structural integrity of bone and therefore understand 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 it is the availability of this calcium that is important. In the 1970s, researchers found that alfalfa hay had a calcium availability comparable with milk products and higher limestone and dicalcium phosphate – commonly used sources of calcium in feeds and supplements. Further work in the 1990s found that high-temperature-dried alfalfa such as in Alfa-A and Hi-Fi had an even greater digestibility than alfalfa hay and milk products.

Highly bio-available calcium

What accounts for this high availability? Well, it is known that, as well as Vitamin D, protein is involved in calcium absorption. High-temperature-dried alfalfa has a higher protein value than grass and alfalfa hay because it is harvested when it is younger and more digestible, and it is this feature of high-temperature-dried alfalfa that is believed to account for the high bioavailability of the calcium it contains.

Alfalfa provides a wide range of vitamins

Alfalfa is rich in fat soluble Vitamins A and E, and the water-soluble B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and Ffolic acid. It  also contains valuable levels of the trace mineral cobalt that enables the horse to synthesise Vitamin B12.

Alfalfa as a natural buffer to gut acidity

Independent research carried out at Texas A&M University, USA, showed that alfalfa was a natural buffer to acidity in the digestive system. Feeding alfalfa was more effective at reducing the incidence of gastric ulcers than turnout on pasture 24/7. The researchers advocate the use of alfalfa whenever cereals are fed, although at Dengie we would ask whether cereals need to be used at all for most horses!

Alfalfa provides your horse with more chew time

Studies conducted by Dr Debbie Goodwin showed that providing horses with different types of forage also provided stimulation for them when stabled. It enhanced their environment and allowed them to demonstrate more natural behaviour. A horse would naturally spend 16 to 18 hours of the day eating. Using fibre as the bucket feed instead of cereals helps to increase chew time – the same weight of fibre takes three times longer than cereals to chew.