The benefits of alfalfa based horse feed
What is Alfalfa?
Although alfalfa for horses is still often perceived as a relatively “new” feed, it has actually been used for thousands of years and the name “alfalfa” comes from Arabic, Persian and Kashmiri words meaning “best horse fodder” and “horse power”. You may also hear the name “Lucerne” used, which can cause confusion, but it is just another name for alfalfa.
Alfalfa is a legume and so is a member of the pea and bean family and has deep roots that enable it to access water and minerals deep in the soil. This makes it a very nutritious crop as well as being beneficial for soil structure. Alfalfa is able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into amino acids in its own tissue and also puts some back into the soil. This means that no additional fertilisers are needed for the alfalfa and the crops that follow in rotation require much less fertiliser too. Alfalfa is left in the ground for three to four years. This not only provides winter ground cover for birds and insects but also reduces the tillage of the land which research is showing is beneficial for carbon capture too.
Benefits of Feeding Alfalfa to Horses
There is a reason alfalfa horse feed is still used today and that’s because it is safe and nutritious. Read on to find out more about the potential health benefits of alfalfa for horses.
Alfalfa Benefits Include Safe Energy
The fibre in alfalfa feed gives your horse slow release energy which they can use for maintenance, work or putting on weight Alfa-A Original provides as much energy as a cool mix, which means for many horses, there is no need to use cereal based feeds at all. Avoiding cereals helps to reduce the risk of digestive upsets such as gut acidity, colic and laminitis. It could also help to manage over excitable behaviour, too!
Alfalfa Has A Low Starch and Sugar Content
The alfalfa plant has a very low content of both starch and water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC) such as sugars and fructan. When oil is added as a coating to alfalfa for horses, sugar levels are typically less than 5% but the energy is high enough to support horses in moderate to hard work. Feeds are rarely (if ever) sugar free, as even straw contains some sugar which is why we use the phrase “no added sugar” to describe our lowest sugar feeds. 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! Due to its low starch and sugar content, alfalfa horse feed is ideal for the laminitis prone and those with muscle problems.
When shopping for horse feed, look out for our ‘No Added Sugar’ logo to be sure you are using the lowest sugar options available. Our Alfa-A Molasses Free feed is made from pure alfalfa for horses and is naturally low in sugar and starch.
Alfalfa is a Source of Quality Protein
Protein has historically been thought to be the cause of all evil in horses but research has shown that this is not the case. In fact, high starch or sugar diets are usually the culprits. Alfalfa is rich in quality protein which simply means it contains good levels of the essential amino acids. 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.
Protein is a vital constituent of muscle and feeding alfalfa for horses is a healthy way to help build muscle tone and top line.
An Abundant Source of Bio-Available Minerals
Alfalfa horse feed contain nearly three times as much calcium as grass. Calcium is crucial for structural integrity of bone. 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. As alfalfa 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.
Alfalfa is a Buffer to Acidity
Independent research has shown that alfalfa is a better buffer than grass forage due to the level of calcium, protein and other components it contains. This means feeding alfalfa can help to regulate acidity in the digestive tract.
Alfalfa for Horses Has A Wide Range of Vitamins
The alfalfa plant is rich in beta carotene which is converted to vitamin A in the body. It also contains vitamin 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 Horse Feed: A Clean Source of Fibre
At Dengie we use high temperature drying (HTD) to conserve the alfalfa – this means we are not dependent on the sun to dry the crop which extends our harvest season. The chopped raw material is brought in from the field and enters the driers within 24 hours of being cut, thereby locking in the natural nutrients. HTD means our alfalfa horse feed is consistently clean with very low mould counts particularly compared to sun-dried forages such as hay and straw.
Myth Busting Alfalfa for Horses
Why does the appearance of the finished product vary?
As alfalfa is a natural material the end product can vary in appearance but this is no different to the variations in colour, size and shape of the fruit and vegetables that we eat. Colour variation in the finished product is something that most people will notice at some stage and whilst some bags can appear bright green others may appear brown. The main factor influencing the colour of alfalfa is the weather with wet and warm conditions producing green, leafy plants while dry and hot weather tends to result in browner material. Although the alfalfa is mixed to try to create a consistent finished product, this can be difficult in years when extreme weather is experienced as most of the crop will be the same.
Alfalfa horse feed can also vary in texture which relates to the proportion of leaf and stem it contains. The stems of the alfalfa plant are very fibrous whereas the leaf is very nutritious. The weather determines how quickly the plant is growing and if the conditions are right, it can mature very quickly making it more fibrous. In contrast, leafy alfalfa horse feed can look very “bitty” in the bag – as the leaf is the most nutritious part it is vital that it is included in the feed and the addition of coatings should help to ensure it is evenly distributed through the bag.
Alfalfa is too rich for my horse
Alfalfa horse feed is very nutritious. So, if you have a good doer that is on restricted rations then a feed from the Hi-Fi range may be most suitable. However, any horse that is being fed a cereal based mix or cube could be fed alfalfa instead. This would provide a higher fibre, lower starch ration that is more sympathetic to the horse’s digestive system without compromising on energy intake.
Also be aware that a lot of information on the web suggesting that alfalfa is too much for certain types of horses and ponies, comes from the USA where alfalfa is fed as a hay. This means the feeding rates are much, much higher than in the UK where it tends to be in the bucket rather than the haynet. At these feeding rates alfalfa is making a valuable contribution to the diet without over-supplying nutrients.
For further information on feeding alfalfa for horses and how your horse can benefit from an alfalfa-based diet, contact one of our nutritional experts here at Dengie.