What are forage alternatives for horses?

Marcia Hathaway
University of Minnesota Extension
A small herd of horses graze in a pasture south of Bath, South Dakota.

When possible, hay and/or pasture should make up a large portion of a horse’s diet. However, the following alternatives can replace traditional forages in part or in whole when needed. 

Last years hay (baled and stored properly): Hay is high in fiber and bulk, which supports the horse’s digestive tract. Nutrition content can be similar to the current year’s hay with the exception of vitamins (especially A and E) which are lost during field drying and storage. A vitamin supplement should be fed when feeding older hay. 

Hay cubes: Nutritional content of hay cubes is similar to hay and nutrition information should be included on the feed label. Cubes are high in fiber and bulk, which supports the horse’s digestive system and can be used as a total replacement to hay. Cubes may have less dust and waste than hay and tend to be easy to handle, transport and store. Cubes tend to be consumed quickly, and may results in horses overeating. 

Alfalfa pellets: Nutritional content of alfalfa pellets should be similar to hay and is high in fiber. Pellets may have less dust and waste than hay and can be used as a total replacement. Horses do tend to spend less time eating and may overeat.

Beet pulp: Beet pulp is high in digestible energy, relatively high in calcium, and high in fiber and bulk, which supports the horse’s digestive tract. It is palatable and can be feed up to 5 to 10 pounds daily (for healthy, adult horses). It can be used as a partial replacement to hay, but owners may need to supplement phosphorus to balance calcium.

Vacuum-packed and chopped alfalfa: Nutritional content is similar to alfalfa hay. It's high in fiber and bulk, which supports the horse’s digestive tract and can be fed as a total replacement to hay. Owners may need to feed a greater mass than hay and the forage type may mold after opening the bag; therefore, it should be fed within a few days.

Complete feeds: These feeds are nutritionally balanced, adequate in fiber and can be used as a total replacement to hay. Complete feeds tend to be consumed more quickly than hay and may not have enough total fiber. It's recommended to divide complete feeds into several, small meals each day. 

Always consider price, availability, and pros and cons when selecting alternative forages for your horse. Make any dietary changes slowly over 14 days and consult your equine nutritionist and veterinarian before making any major dietary changes.