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Farm Case Study

(post by Jason) A few weeks ago I did a series of nutritional consultations involving ration analysis and some troubleshooting at a large equine facility located in the mid South. What I found was interesting so I thought you might enjoy reading about it here on our blog. As always, the name of the clients and facility is being withheld to protect their anonymity.


The clients have roughly 80 horses all of whom are on half day turnout with the remainder of their time being spent in stalls. The turnout paddocks are clean and large and the horses have free choice access to round bales of moderate quality grass hay. They are on average eating 5-7 lbs of this hay during their relatively short turnout. The grass was very lush in these paddocks all summer long.

The horses were eating roughly 18 lbs straight alfalfa hay broken into four feedings over the course of the 16-20 hrs per day they spend in their stalls. They were also getting roughly 1.5 lb beet pulp soaked at their afternoon feeding. Additionally they were getting a vit/min supplement made on the west coast, some Epsom salts and grain 2X per day at a max of 3 lb per feeding. The clients did not know anything about the energy content or starch/sugar level of this grain. The stalls all had automatic waterers that measured water volume. Horses drinking less than 5 gallons per day in the winter had buckets added to their stalls.

The horses had been de-wormed when fecal parasite load showed it was necessary which meant some horses were being de-wormed a few times per year and some not at all.

When we had a look at body condition score the average was quite high; most of the horses were overconditioned and a few were obese. There were no skinny horses on the property. The clients had seen several gas colics; all but one resolved with minimal veterinary assistance. These clients were adamant they did not want to make a change away from alfalfa hay but were open to changing nearly anything else. Their goals were to keep their feeding program as simple as possible and focus on providing excellent quality forages with minimal energy and mineral supplementation.


The very first thing I did was send away a sample of their alfalfa hay for analysis. A copy of the analysis is shown below. My first ration analysis was to evaluate their current forage feeding program to see where they stood from a nutritional perspective. After identifying what they were doing my second ration analysis would fix whatever problems I uncovered while staying within the parameters outlined by the clients.

Copy of hay analysis; click to enlarge

Unfortunately, horses don’t eat percentages so the first thing I did was convert all the figures above into pounds of nutrients. I did this by multiplying the percentages in the as fed column (first column) by the number of pounds of this forage (18) that the horses are currently eating. I then compared my nutrient analysis to tabled values for horses roughly the same size and in roughly the same body condition as those of my clients. My findings are listed below:

1. Total crude protein levels were extremely high. This is not an abnormal situation where alfalfa is concerned. Extra protein is processed in the liver and kidneys and is excreted as urine. Making the liver and kidneys work extra hard over a long period of time is almost certainly setting certain horses up for future metabolic disorders.

2. Ration Energy levels were also quite high and the NSC of the grain they were feeding was off the charts at 66 %.

3. Ca and K levels were quite high while Mg and P levels were reasonable. This was exactly what I expected to see with alfalfa hay.

4. On the trace mineral side iron was very high while zinc, copper and manganese were all low/deficient. When I plugged in the trace mineral values from the client’s vit/min supplement it became clear very quickly that this was not the right product for an alfalfa based diet.


1. De-worm on a more regular basis. De-worming according to fecal parasite load is fine when horses spend nearly all their time in stalls and/or are on single turnout in a paddock that *isn’t* shared with other horses. Even then, if you aren’t regularly sampling every horse’s manure…ie. several times a year… it’s easy to have a few develop large parasite loads while everyone else is fine. Additionally fecal testing cannot identify certain types of parasite loads such as encysted strongyles and tapeworms. Thus it is my opinion that every horse ought to be de-wormed at least twice per year with a product that can address tapeworms and encysted strongyles.

2. The clients should seriously think about switching forages. Although alfalfa is energy dense it is severely oversupplying protein in this diet. The other problem is that the horses are not meeting gut fill requirements with this forage as is seen by their consumption of moderate quality grass hay while on turn out. Horses are not designed to have empty guts. It would be my recommendation to switch to a good quality grass hay. This would more closely match equine protein requirements with what is on offer from the ration while maintaining an excellent energy profile and a mineral balance much more suited to equine digestive systems.

3. The client should seriously consider changing grain sources to something (anything) with a more reasonable NSC/starch/sugar profile. I told her to come and visit our large retirement farm if she wanted to see what high NSC grain feeds do to horses. We have many horses that came to us from a similar feeding program and they often arrive with a history of Insulin resistance and laminitis. Their owners will be happy to tell you that these are expensive and time consuming to treat and they are often a direct result of feeding forages and grains that are extremely high in starch in sugar.

4. If the clients are going to continue feeding alfalfa hay then they should definitely feed an alfalfa ration balancer instead of the vit/min mix they were currently feeding. I recommended a couple of good commercial options.

5. Epsom salts are mostly a combination of magnesium sulfate and potassium sulfate. Since neither of these minerals were limiting and in fact potassium levels were very high I recommended the clients discontinue feeding Epsom salts immediately.

6. The clients were worried about the number of gas colics they were seeing. Gas colics can be caused by so many things that one is almost never able to define a single causative agent that when remedied eliminates the problem. However there is absolutely nothing to lose and possibly much to gain from reducing the cumulative stressors we put on our horses. In this case reducing cumulative stress, at least from a nutritional perspective, would best be accomplished from following the recommendations listed above.

It will be very interesting to do a follow up with these clients in several months to see what changes they’ve implemented and to see the results of their dietary and management changes. It’s rewarding to be able to take my life experiences and offer sound long term independent solutions to their farm management and nutritional challenges.



Merlin, Lightning and Lucky waiting for breakfast in the fog

Rip and Levendi

Gus wondering just how far George could shove his head into the hay (apparently his entire head!)

Lotus, Romeo and Lofty

O’Reilly showing off his elf ears

Walon and Largo

Toledo, Clayton and Rocky

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