Three Things to Keep in Mind When Adding Alfalfa Hay to Your Horse's Diet

Posted on: 15 September 2016

Alfalfa hay has long been used as feed for horses. As it is higher in calories than grass hays like Timothy and orchard, it is often added to the diets of horses who need to gain weight, are doing heavy work, or are nursing. However, there are some intricacies to keep in mind if you're thinking of adding alfalfa hay to your horse's diet.

Alfalfa is high in protein.

Alfalfa is typically between 15% and 20% crude protein. This is notably higher than the protein content of Timothy or orchard grass, which have protein contents that tend to hover around 7% to 10%. Adding more protein to the diet, in many cases, is part of the goal when feeding alfalfa, as this higher protein level can help a horse put on weight or produce rich milk for a foal. However, too much protein can be hard on the kidneys. So, when feeding alfalfa, make sure the other rations in your horse's diet—their other hay and their grain ration—are lower-protein options. Feeding high-protein alfalfa and lower-protein Timothy hay with a lower-protein (10% or 12%) grain ration is a common strategy.

Alfalfa is high in calcium.

Horses must receive the right ration of calcium to phosphorus in their diets in order to maintain bone health and nervous-system function. A calcium:phosphorus ratio of less than 1:1 can put the horse at risk. Alfalfa is very high in calcium, so feeding alfalfa exclusively is not a good idea. Make sure your horse is given plenty of grass hay alongside the alfalfa, as this tends to be higher in phosphorus. Many owners choose to feed one-third alfalfa to two-thirds grass hay by weight.

Alfalfa is very palatable.

Most horses find alfalfa to be highly palatable. If you put grass hay and alfalfa in your horse's stall at the same time, he'll probably go for the alfalfa first. This can be a good thing, since it can encourage picky, hard-keeper horses to eat their rations and put on weight. However, this also makes it very important to store your alfalfa securely. If your horse gets out and access the alfalfa, you can bet he'll overeat—and this can surely lead to founder or colic.

For horses with small appetites, the palatability of alfalfa may cause them to turn up their noses to other feeds. In this case, giving your horse the rest of his feed ration and then offering alfalfa only once the other hay and grain is gone tends to work well.

If you have any additional concerns about feeding alfalfa hay, talk to an equine nutritionist. Every horse is different, and your nutritionist can analyze your horse's needs to recommend a specific amount of alfalfa hay for your horse.

Share