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Oat hay and horse's diet

From: Deborah

Hi Jessica,

I have been a horse-sense subscriber now for several years, and I shall remember to update my sponsorship this evening! I really enjoy reading the questions and responses each week, and I also find the archives extremely useful.

I have a couple of questions about forage and fiber sources. Here are the questions, some explanation of why I'm asking them follows, below:

1) What the heck *is* oat hay? How does it compare to alfalfa or timothy?

2) Is it safer to feed a largeish portion of a high-fat, beet-pulp based feed or a complete feed once a day than it is to feed a similar amount of calories as oats? By largeish I mean 1-1.5 3qt scoops (or at least the equivalent of maybe 3 qts of oats in terms of energy), not buckets-full. Would the complete feed be a better bet? The beet-pulp based feeds seem to run about 12% protien and 10% fiber and the complete feeds are up to 25% fiber, but I'm not sure what the source is.

3) Is beet pulp equivalent to hay in terms of providing roughage?

Oat hay is *the* grass hay fed in Southern California and timothy is very expensive when you can get it -- my boarding stable (which is an excellent though large facility, one of the best in the area) provides a choice between oat and alfalfa or a mixture of the two, but not timothy or anything else that seems like a "normal" grass hay to my non-LA-native perspective. (However, in this area it is a boon to find a place that feeds real hay, instead of cubes, let alone offers any type of grass hay at all!) My horse gets half to all of his forage as oat hay, and I can't seem to figure out what the stuff is, nutritionally. How does it differ from straw, which I understand to be a very poor-quality roughage? I've been told that oat hay is nutritionally the same as any grass hay, but it seems to me to be considerably coarser than timothy. As common as the stuff is here, I've yet to find a good source of average nutritional specs for the stuff. How does its protein/fiber/Ca:Ph ratio/Digestible energy compare to alfalfa hay or timothy hay?

For a bit of background, my otherwise perfect horse has colicked twice in the 9 months I've had him, requiring surgery for a displacement on the first occasion and having a mild colic attributed to gas on the second occasion. Needless to say, I am somewhat alarmed, and am becoming as much of an expert as I can manage on colic, nutrition and management! My horse lives outside in a 400m2 sand paddock, gets 2 flakes of alfalfa hay in the AM and 2 flakes of oat hay in the PM and a small amount (~1qt) of oats in the evening carrying some vitamins. He has a salt block, which he uses, now has a tub to supplement his paddle-type automatic waterer, and is ridden 5-6 days per week for 30-60 minutes, currently hacking and dressage with a goal of adding jumping back in for lower level eventing. He is wormed regularly and gets a course of psyllium one week out of every month. He is a WBxTB, a big-boned and fairly mellow guy, who is a fairly easy keeper, but is currently just a little underweight and I would like to put a few pounds on him without putting it on too quickly or risking another colic incident. He'll also need some more groceries as his work load increases.

One of my concerns is that the boarding stable feeds the hay on a regular schedule but I must feed the supplementary grain myself. This means that the supplemental feed is delivered in one meal, generally in the evening, but occasionally somewhat earlier in the day. I'd like to give him a bit more supplementation, but I don't want to be giving him a huge concentrate meal once a day, so I'm considering switching from oats to a beet pulp based feed which is more like a roughage source... can I feed this or a so-called "complete feed" on a once-daily basis in addition to his hay without worrying as much as I would if I were feeding a straight grain or grain mix? Other options include switching him to an all alfalfa diet (but I tried this once in the summer and he gained weight VERY quickly and also wound up with more energy than I had a good use for at the time) or asking them to give him MORE oat hay or throwing him an extra flake myself in the evening. The problem with special feeding instructions is that at such a large facility, mistakes do occasionally happen when someone new is doing the feeding, so his routine is apt to be more stable if I stick to one of the standard options. The problem with me doing the supplementation is that I'm not able, with a demanding job and other responsibilities, to always be there at the same time every day; often I can come back in the evening on my way home from work, but sometimes I have to be somewhere else and must feed early and when I am out of town I rely on friends whose schedules differ from mine. So I'd really like him to be getting the vast majority of his feed from the boarding stable which operates like clockwork day in and day out! Deborah

Hi Deborah!

I can understand your wish to have your horse on a predictable and safe feeding schedule. Since he's on sand, I'm glad to see that you're following a psyllium-feeding protocol to try to minimize the impact of ingested sand. DO keep in mind, though, that sand colic is still a possibility.

Oat hay can certainly be part of the feeding program.

The difference between oat straw and oat hay is simple: the oats. ;-) Oat hay is hay made from an oat crop. If the oats have been harvested - the seed heads are no longer present - then what remains is oat straw. If you aren't sure which you have, look closely - if you find stems, flat leaves, and seed heads, it's hay. Oat hay has large, hollow stems, which is why it looks coarse.

Quality and nutritional value can vary, according to where the oat hay was grown and when it was cut.

If oat hay is cut early, when the grains just start to appear, it will typically be a light green colour and have more oats. Early-cut oat hay is usually similiar, nutritionally speaking, to good grass hay - about the same amount of protein, but less calcium. If the oats are cut when the leaves and stems are green and the grain is not yet hard, the resulting oat hay will be very much like good grass hay in terms of its protein content, although it is likely to be lower in calcium than a comparable grass hay would be. (This wouldn't be a problem for your horse, as half of his hay ration is alfalfa, which is high in calcium.)

If oat hay is cut later, when the oats are mature (hard), the hay will typically be a more golden, "straw" colour, and there will be noticeably fewer seed heads. If you look at later-cut oat hay and think "That's just like oat straw with a few oats thrown in!" you'll be right. At that point, there is almost no nutritional difference between "oat hay" and "oat straw".

Good oat HAY should have most of the seedheads intact. If it doesn't, it's basically oat straw, which is perfectly healthy and good for horses, especially in winter (lots of chewing time keeps them busy and cheerful, lots of fiber trickling through their systems keeps them warm). Just be aware of the nutritional value of what you're feeding, and make your adjustments accordingly.

As I understand it - and you may want to double-check this with your veterinarian - the biggest problem with oat hay is that it CAN have dangerously high levels of nitrate, and requires to be tested so that you can be sure that your horse isn't getting too much nitrate in his diet. Good-quality oat hay that is not too high in nitrate is a perfectly good source of nutrition and roughage. As with any hay, though, you need to investigate how it was grown (not enough rain? enough? too much? enough fertilizer? not enough? too much? enough sun? not enough? too much?), when it was cut (early maturity, full maturity, past its peak?), how it was handled (carefully, to preserve seed heads? or roughly?), and how and where it was stored before you bought it.

If you're going to feed your horse a large amount of ANYTHING at any one time, it had better be a high-fiber, low-protein feed such as hay. If you need to supplement the hay with another source of roughage, consider beet pulp. It's a good source of digestible fiber, doesn't offer as much fiber as (most) hay, but it's usually quite safe to use it for up to 50% of your horse's forage.

Before you ask, here are the answers to several questions that people usually DO ask about beet pulp!

No, it isn't high in sugar - unless molasses has been added, as is sometimes done (read the label carefully). Beet pulp is what's left over when sugar beets have had their sugar removed. There's a little sucrose there, but not very much. Watch for extra molasses - but if you're worried about sugar intake, look closely at the other feeds at the barn, too. Many grain mixes contain substantial amounts of molasses, for various reasons, none of which have to do with the horse's nutritional needs).

Beet pulp is NOT like straw - it DOES have nutritional value. In fact, it has good nutritional value. Don't put it in the same "roughage only" category as straw; think of it as a feed that is good forage with relatively low fiber content, or as a good concentrate with comparatively low protein content - or both.

Reading feed bag labels is an art. Don't avoid reading the labels, even if you're daunted by the long list of every single ingredient and vitamin/mineral percentage. Try this: look at TWO values on the bag, the CRUDE FIBER content and the PROTEIN content. If you're in any doubt about whether the bag of feed you just bought is a high-energy and/or high-protein concentrate, or whether it's a high-fiber forage substitute or forage in a different form, those numbers will tell you what you need to know.

If you're trying to balance your horse's feed intake, providing precisely THIS amount of forage (feeds with a crude fiber content greater than 18%) with precisely THAT amount of concentrates (grains, fat, sugar/molasses), you'll have to put beet pulp (10% crude protein; 18% crude fiber) right in the middle between those two categories. It's probably most practical to treat it as a forage, even though it's just at the low end of that category.

Beet pulp, in some cases, can be preferable to grain. Beet pulp, like grain, is a good energy food, but it's actually much safer to feed, because of its low glycemic index. In other words, since (compared to grain) it's lower in starch and higher in fatty acids, it won't cause drastic highs and lows in your horse's blood glucose level. Large amounts of grain (which has a high glycemic index) can put a horse at risk for colic and laminitis, and if you aren't in a position to provide many small feeds daily, but have to rely on others giving your horse ONE large non-hay feed each day, he will probably be safer on the beet pulp-based feed than he would be on grain. Feeder error is always a possibility, and a horse that is given twice its normal ration of hay or beet-pulp-based feed is less likely to suffer dire consequences than is a horse given twice its normal ration of grain.

If you must feed any GRAIN in quantity, whole oats are the safest, since they are so high in fiber. Hulled oats would be a different matter, and much more dangerous to feed in bulk.

Beet pulp does NOT have to be soaked. Horses can eat unsoaked beet pulp and do very well, whether it's dried or pelleted. There have been some very interesting university studies performed, in which horses were fed dried (not soaked) beet pulp in amounts up to almost HALF of their entire food ration, and did very well indeed, with no stomach- or intestine- exploding consequences. ;-) Quite a few commercial feeds - designed to be fed dry, like the one you are considering using - are based on beet pulp. Know your horse and his living conditions! If he is a reasonably calm eater - doesn't bolt his food - has full-time access to water, and is not choke-prone, you should be able to feed him beet pulp. If he DOES bolt his food, does NOT have full-time access to water, and IS choke-prone, you'll need to limit his intake of concentrates drastically, arrange to have many tiny feedings given daily (not practical in your case, I know), use a trickle feeder (also not practical for your horse, because of the sand), or simply try to meet all of the horse's nutritional needs by providing large amounts of hay (alfalfa and oat hay).

In fact, it sounds as though your horse might benefit from getting alfalfa and oat hay in the morning, and alfalfa and oat hay at night - and more hay overall. As for concentrates, you are right to be cautious about the overall amount. Horse stomachs are surprisingly small, and horses are "trickle feeders" - designed to graze and walk most of the day and night. Any given "feeding" should include no more than 4.5 pounds of concentrates, whether the content is oats, a mixture of grains, or a sweet-feed mix. It's risky to feed large amounts of grain at one time, even under the best of circumstances, since horses simply aren't designed for that kind of feeding; it can be fatal if someone assigned to, say, Thursday feeding accidentally gives the horse a double helping of grain, or fails to notice that the horse doesn't seem well and should therefore not be given any grain at all.

Grain is a supplement, not a feed, and needs to be used carefully. If your horse is fed ONLY twice a day, you can't offer it more and more concentrates at each feeding, because you'll quickly reach a point at which the horse's stomach simply can't deal with the amount. At this point, you'll need to look at feeds that pack more calories into the same amount - and you'll want to avoid feeding too much grain at once. A beet-pulp-based feed could be very helpful here. Since beet pulp is relatively high in calcium, it will also help you maintain a safe calcium/phosphorous ratio in your horse's diet. If your horse is being fed grain, the calcium provided by the beet pulp and will help compensate for the increased phosphorous intake.

If the overall feeding schedule for the barn varies a little - let's say that the horses are always fed twice a day, but the morning feed is given (for example) sometime between 6 and 8, and the evening feed is also given sometime between 6 and 8, that's not a bad thing. An absolutely rigid feeding schedule is not necessarily a good thing - horses that are confident that they'll be fed at some point during the morning and evening hours (at least!) are generally much more flexible about timing of meals and much less concerned about a meal being "late". Horses on an absolutely rigid feeding schedule, horses that know that they'll get fed at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. sharp, can become absolutely frantic if something happens to delay a feed. You can safely give him his supplements, with some hay, whenever you're at the barn during the day. I wouldn't try to take over his feeding at odd hours, though - at any large or small boarding barn, the problem with changing ONE horse's feeding times is twofold: the other horses will become agitated when THAT horse is fed "out of turn", and the horse in question will, understandably, fully expect to be fed when the other horses are fed, and will become anxious and stressed if it thinks that it has missed a meal.

NRC feed requirements provide a good starting point - but do keep in mind that these are minimum daily requirements to avoid overt deficiencies, NOT amounts to promote or maintain optimum health. There's a long, long way from "adequate" to "optimum", and if what you want for your horse is optimum health, you'll be well-advised to work closely with your vet. If you want a good at-home reading assignment in addition to the NRC requirements, I highly recommend the Lon D. Lewis book on Feeding the Horse.

As for feeding supplements, that too can be complicated, I know. I once kept horses at a boarding stable where four or five different people fed, all at different times and in different ways, and there seemed to be no way to ensure that any individual horse would get its supplements, especially since there were so many different horses, each one getting what its owner thought was the ideal supplement or combination of supplements. I dealt with this by attaching (with the permission of the stable owner) a small wire basket to the outside of each stall, where the horse couldn't reach it but the person feeding COULD, and kept small plastic containers clearly labeled "A.M." and "P.M" in the basket. When all the feeders had to do was dump the contents of a container into the manger with the grain, they did it very reliably, and on those few occasions when someone forgot, I saw the still-full container when I arrived, so I knew that the horse hadn't been given its supplements. I never had to wonder whether my horses had been given their supplements - or how much of which supplements they had been given - because I had filled the containers myself. If you're in any doubt about your horse's supplement intake, you might try to implement something like this.

It's difficult to manage a horse's nutritional program when you aren't able to do the feeding yourself, and most boarding stables are not staffed or run in a way that would allow the horses to be fed even three or four times a day. If you can arrange for your horse to get more hay, and ensure that he is never given a large quantity of grain at any one time, you should be able to relax a little. If you are very worried, it can't hurt, and it might help, to add a probiotic to his supplements. If he can be given daily hay amounting to 2% of his bodyweight, that - and his supplements - make a good starting point for a feeding program for a horse that, like yours, is in light work.

Good luck!


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