We have always fed alfalfa (lucerne) hay, but I have been introduced to alfalfa pellets and cubes recently. I believe in using the best nutrition possible for my racehorses. I am just beginning my training program, so I want to try new things that I think will build a healthier equine athlete. I plan on using the pellets with the morning feeding and a flake of alfalfa hay in the evening. Does this seem acceptable?
Many horses do as well on alfalfa pellets and cubes as they do on alfalfa hay. One reason people prefer pelleted or cubed hay is that it tends to be a more consistent product that changes little between bags, unlike hay cuttings. Pellets and cubes can be dampened to increase palatability and contribute to water intake. Although this doesn’t pertain to your situation, older horses with poor teeth often do quite well on moistened forage pellets.
Pellets and cubes are made from fibers of short length, which simply means hay has been chopped finely so it can be formed into a different type of product. While horses can digest short-stem fiber easily, they do need a source of long-stem fiber. As long as horses get at least 1-2 lb (0.45-0.9 kg) of traditional hay in addition to 1-1.5% of its body weight in other forage forms (pellets or cubes), long-stem fiber requirements should be met.
For some horses, this might not be enough long-stem forage, and they will find other things to chew on, such as wood, or will develop stereotypical behaviors to occupy their time. This might be especially true for horses that have little or no access to turnout, as many racehorses are managed.
One key management strategy in preventing gastric ulcers is the provision of free-access forage, regardless of form (pellets, cubes, or long-stem hay). Further, researchers have shown that offering a small amount of alfalfa hay or chaff (and likely pellets) about 30 minutes prior to exercise can be beneficial in buffering stomach acid and providing a fibrous mat that might protect the sensitive part of the stomach from sloshing acid.
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