While we are all enjoying the sunny weather, there is no doubt that the grass is suffering, and the bare brown paddocks are a testament to that. We are not the only ones dealing with this, and it is of great concern to horse owners. What are the consequences for horses and grazing?
How to deal with dry paddocks
First, a hot, dry period will lead to limited grazing; growth slows because lack of water stresses the grass. Horses in paddocks will continue to consume what is available, tearing up grass very close to the ground and leaving a “bald” and uneven paddock.
One of the first consequences of this is that horses that graze continuously in the same pen will have less to eat. It is important to remember that horses are herbivores that have evolved to eat little and often, and that fiber is critical to their digestive and behavioral health. Symptoms such as loose droppings and colic may be indicative of low-fiber diets. Owners of horses grazing on sandy ground will need to be especially aware of the risks of sand colic, as the horse picks up sand more easily when grazing shorter, sparse grass.
All horses and ponies should receive daily fiber equal to at least 1.5 percent of their body weight. For a 500 kg horse, this would be equivalent to 7.5 kg per day. So how much grass does your horse consume when he is outside? Unfortunately, this is a very difficult question to answer because under practical conditions it is impossible to determine intake. One way to ascertain if grass is still growing is to fence off a small area within the corral that your horse is grazing, and monitor it. If the grass in this area turns green and grows, then the grass in the rest of the paddock is growing, it’s just that your horse is eating it before you can see it! Another good tip is to monitor the amount of your horse’s droppings. A reduction in the number of excreta generally means that there has been a reduction in intake.
If your corral is really bare and grass is not growing, then your horse should have access to additional forage to maintain his digestive and behavioral health. If the grass is greener on the other side of the paddock, a horse can quickly jump the fence or even destroy it!
How soon can I provide the new forages?
One question we receive is, “How soon can I give a new forage to my horse?” Hay can be supplied after harvest, as long as the bales are not heated. The key point here is that the introduction of the new hay will be a major change in the diet, and if it is done quickly it could cause digestive upset. Any changes in diet should ideally be made gradually, mixing old and new hay together over a period of at least a couple of weeks. Providing hay in feeding nets will also help slow the intake rate and prevent the selection of only new hay.
Hay-silo should be stored for at least 6 weeks or longer before administration. This is because it takes time to promote the preservation process that is promoted by oxygen removal. Again, the same rules apply as when administering new hay.
If forage is still scarce, hay substitutes can be used to extend or replace the ration. Whatever forage source is used, make sure that the ration is appropriate for the individual and particularly for his or her body weight.
Overweight Horses and Parched Paddocks
While there are many dry paddocks, it cannot be denied that there are still many overweight horses and grazing ponies that do not seem to lose weight.
If it is determined that grass is not really growing, then it is still important to provide adequate fiber intake even for horses that need to lose weight. We just have to be smart with the fiber sources we choose to get the best results. In this case, a more fibrous hay may be the best option. The later the cut, the more fibrous the hay, and the lower the calories. This can only really be determined by analysis. Foods and forages of 8 MJ or less digestible energy are considered low in calories.
Straw is a useful source of low-calorie fiber that can be mixed with the hay ration to reduce overall caloric intake. Currently it is recommended to replace up to 30 percent of the ration with straw.
While some horses seem to live off the open air, there are also those that lose weight quite quickly when the grass disappears. Forage is recommended for all those who do not easily maintain their weight. Hay and hay-silo cut earlier will overall be more nutritious and energy-rich for these horses. Before you get to traditional mixes and cubes to fill the energy gap, you can also add more fiber into the bucket to help maintain weight, or you can use hay substitutes with higher calories.
Any forage in the Dengie Alfa-A range, based on pure alfalfa, can be used as a means of topping up or extending poor quality hay. You can feed up to 500 g per 100 kg of body weight per day, which is equivalent to 2.5 kg for a 500 kg horse.
Dengie Meadow Grass With Herbs can also be used as a partial substitute for hay. Meadow Grass with Herbs, combines chopped and pelleted grasses with a canola oil coating and a mixture of herbs, can be administered at the rate of up to 1 kg per 100 kg of body weight per day, as long as it is not fed together with other high-oil foods.
If a total forage replacement is needed, Dengie Hi-Fi Senior and Dengie Grass Pellets are the best option. Hi-Fi Senior combines high-temperature dried herbs and alfalfa with a light coating of molasses oil.
Is my horse at risk of laminitis grazing on a dry paddock?
Even if the herb looks dead, it does not mean it is low in sugar. In fact, when the grass is under stress, it accumulates more sugar because the plant is still photosynthesizing, but because the grass is not growing, the sugar is stored rather than used. Fructan is the sugar stored in the grass and is mostly stored at the base of the plant-precisely what the horse eats when it cuts close to the ground.
While the amount of grass available to eat on an arid paddock greatly limits the amount of sugar consumed, care should be taken for individuals with insulin dysregulation problems, who may be particularly prone to laminitis. Horses with insulin dysregulation do not normally respond to the intake of nonstructural carbohydrates (the sum of sugar or water-soluble carbohydrates, fructose and starch added together). Insulin dysregulation causes higher than normal levels of insulin in the blood and is believed to lead to a higher risk of laminitis.
The problem increases when the rain eventually comes and the grass starts growing again. Fructans are converted back to simpler sugars to allow the grass to grow, so the grass ends up with a much more concentrated amount of nonstructural carbohydrates. Although the amount of herb initially available for consumption is still small, this could be enough to trigger laminitis in susceptible individuals. Therefore, it may be best to remove horses and ponies prone to laminitis from the pasture, and feed an appropriate forage-based ration that ideally contains less than 10-12% nonstructural carbohydrates.