Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Thoughts on Alfalfa

I just wanted to take a minute to talk about alfalfa. Alfalfa has probably been one of the most controversial, misunderstood forages for horses.

For years, like most of you, I fed alfalfa to my horses. But then, I’m going to say about 5 to 7 years ago, I started hearing all the rumors about how terrible alfalfa is for our horses. I didn’t look at my horses and think, “Hmm, but they seem to be doing well with it as part of their diet."

Nope! I listened to the rumors and took it completely out of their diet. Replaced with grass hay and watched as my horses’ energy, weight, coat and hooves began to lose…something. That healthy appearance, or snappy glow, just wasn’t there after awhile.

So, I went through a period when I recommended "No alfalfa" for any reason to any equine, ever! That was in my American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners (AANHCP) and Zen Master, (note sarcasm) Jaime Jackson, days.

I've since learned that with nutrition, for horses especially, there is no cut and dried (PUN!), right or wrong, black or white, all or nothing way to feed. There are all sorts of shades of green and brown.

Many nutritionists recommend testing our hay. True, it’s really the only way to know how we should supplement the hay we feed, but…

…testing hay for me is difficult. I, like many of you have precious little storage space for hay. So we purchase about one ton of hay at a time, feed it out, and go purchase the next ton. I have several hay sources that I purchase from and I feed a variety of hays because equine bodies were meant for a variety of forages. Not just one type all the time.

Sometimes I get lucky and the hay I get is beautiful and the horses love it! And sometimes it's dusty, dirty, and not that nice, but the horses eat it if they get hungry enough.

The thing is, I had fed alfalfa, either exclusively or with other hays, over the years, but when I really got into “natural” horse and hoof care, I learned that alfalfa is not natural to the horse’s diet and that it is intended mainly to put weight on beef cattle and that was all it was good for. True, it’s great for fattening cattle…and horses!

So after hearing the rumors and banning the green stuff from my barn, I discovered Katy Watts! A scientist! Katy has done studies in her own back yard in her own lab on hays. You can purchase her DVD’s from her website and learn all about it yourself.

One of the main things I took away from Katy's research was that alfalfa is one of the only hays that has NO SUGARS. That may not be what she intended me to take away exclusively, but I did. Not only that, but alfalfa is loaded with calcium and protein and packs a real nutritional bang for my horse-feeding buck.

(Note: that picture has been altered:0)
I believe that over the past number of years, we horse owners got so caught up in limiting proteins and fat (needed for energy) from our horses’ diets that we totally spaced over on how bad sugars are for them. Note: I personally prefer my horses to have energy. If they really act out, I blame my training program, not my feeding program.

So now a-days, we are seeing so many EPSM, insulin resistant, cushings or some other sort of metabolically challenged horses, not to mention regular old chronic founder cases, that it’s kind of mind boggling. Why weren’t we seeing as many of those issues years ago when everyone was feeding…um, alfalfa?

Most equines will choose to eat alfalfa over any other hay. Some horses might get loose stools when it’s first introduced to them, but if it’s slowly added into their diet as any new feed should be, that issue usually clears up in short order.

I’ve heard that alfalfa will make our horses fat and will likely cause founder. It could make them fat, if "over-feeding" is part of your horse’s nutrition plan, but it is less likely to cause founder than when we allow our horses to graze on spring pastures during the temperatures when grasses aren't as efficiently respirating out the sugars that is manufactured during photosynthesizes during sunny warm days.

I’ve heard that it destroys the horses liver. Maybe, I’m not scientist, but haven’t seen evidence of that, yet, have you? Let me know if you have.

And that it shortens the life of donkeys. Huh! Who did that study? I haven’t heard about it. Donkeys can survive on just about anything and live to a ripe old age, so again, who did that study? It would take years to confirm whether that declaration is true or not.

Our own donkeys eat alfalfa everyday and they are still alive and healthier than when I wasn’t feeding alfalfa. Their feet are in great shape, their weight is pretty good, they are a little pudgy, and they usually have shiny coats in the summer. As do the mules. I'll make a note of it if they start dropping dead soon.

So because of the ribs I was seeing around my pasture, last year, I went back to feeding alfalfa. Slowly those ribs have been covered over, although, I’m pretty careful in trying NOT to allow my horses to get fat.

It’s not easy to keep minis from getting fat, but on the larger equines, I don’t like to see them fat. As we know, sugars and obesity can lead to laminitis, founder and insulin resistance.

A fat horse is no healthier than a fat person. I cannot figure out why, we prefer humans to be slim and trim - a few ribs showing is a good thing. But on our horses, we want them fat and sleek and we ask them to work very hard in that condition. If that were the case with people, I could consider myself in excellent physical condition! (I'm not. I'm right up there in weight, with my minis.)

(Again, altered picture!  Do I really need to mention that?)
Anyway, I think there is much research to be done and much to learn about equine nutrition. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t believe there are many experts in that field, because not enough research has been done in that arena.

In my opinion, equine nutrition as we know it is mostly speculation. We mostly are guessing and that explains so many different diets, and the mind-blowing plethora of supplements we horse owners have to chose from.

This is one book that I didn’t care for at first, but had only skimmed it before making my initial (hasty) decision, is now one of my favorites on nutrition.

On the back cover is a horse leaning over a rickety fence getting into a pile of apples that had fallen off the tree. Crap! That’s not good. But there I was judging a book by its cover! Now that I’ve given this book a chance, I really like it and I feel it’s probably better than most books I’ve read on the topic. If you give it a read, let me know what you think. I’m always interested in other opinions – usually -and mostly if they agree with mine. Hee.



megan colleen said...

I admit I don't know much about horses anymore... but when I was young and had horses my dad fed alfalfa exclusively to all of our horses including our broodmares year round due to over grazing on the pasture we had. We never had issues with them having health problems.

As far as horses having loose stools when switching foods? That's true when you do it for dogs or cats too switching them from one kind of food to another. It's usually recommended to slowly introduce the new foods to minimize the gastric upset.

Why would horses be any different?

Denali said...

I've been trying to learn as much as I can about feeding horses. The only thing I heard about alfalfa is that it causes extra water gain in the horse and makes them look like they have weight on that they really don't. I'll have to read the book you suggested to get an idea of other people's idea of feeding. Denali is now feed Timothy and Orchard Grass mix.

Also. Question. chronic degenerative tendinitis and laminitis. Are they genetic? What causes them? My horses sire was put down because of these. You know everything :) I thought maybe you'd know!

Mikey said...

I like alfalfa and I feed it now. Certain horses (and especially ponies) who have foundered, those I keep on grass - but I swear, those animals can get fat on air. My donkey, this winter he got alfalfa or bermuda blend softened pellets (age 20-30 ish, one back tooth) along with senior feed, plus alfalfa hay. I read that too, that it shortens their life span, but I tell you, he looked better this winter than he has in the past.
I think it's just knowing the animal and thinking for yourself. If they look thin, feed more.
It seems that we're heard this, that and the other, everything is the gospel truth until 20 yrs later they tell you it causes cancer.
You know, down here everyone feeds psyllium for sand colic. Well I got to thinking about it, and I quit feeding it for a while. Lo and behold, I have less colic. It seemed every time I would feed it, I'd get someone with a bellyache or full blown colic. Since then I've had two cases of colic in the last 2 yrs, and one was a stone, the horse was old and had to be euthed. The other was resolved with Banamine.
I say do whatever works for the animal.

Pat said...


That's interesting about the psyllium for sand colic. We don't typically have an issue with sand up here (ours is with mud:0) but I talked to a gal recently who was told to give her horse a supplement for sand colic and sure enough she nearly lost her horse due to colic. She was the second person to tell me about that. You are the third. Interesting!!

Odd that the cure is worse than the condition.

Megan, you're right about gastric upset and introducing new foods too quickly!

Thank you both for your comments.

firecoach said...

I was wondering about Alfalfa. My first horse, when I lived in Southern California, that is all she got. She was always healthy and looked great. She lived to be 23 years old and the only reason she is not around is because of a trailer accident. The trailer ball broke.
I have an IR mini and he gets timothy, but I also get Alfalfa cubes, soak them and he gets a handful. That is enough to keep him happy. My half draft that was so ill, gets 2 scoops of alfalfa cubes. I wanted him to gain the needed weight and the alfalfa did it, along with grass hay.
My friend had a 35 year old mare, and when she moved up here after feeding her alfalfa all her life stopped because it just was not done. She lost weight and just did not look good. So she went back to feeding alfalfa and grass hay for munchies. She looked marvelous till the day she died. Yet her other horse gets goofy when he is fed alfalfa. It just depends on the horse and the situation.

megan colleen said...

Mikey - we had a pony that lived to be almost 32, and he ate alfalfa until the day he died. My dad didn't supplement much, but Dicky was pretty fat and sassy right to the end. He also never had any problems with his feet.

Either the pony had good genes, some dumb luck, or all of that and beyond.

It's odd to hear everyone go nuts over nutrition over an animal that eats grass for a living. I mean, don't get me wrong, every animal should have good nutrition... I stress abotu my dog's nutrition often... but it's not exactly rocket science about what to feed.

Perhaps I'm simplifying the matter too much?

lytha said...

Good, thought-provoking post.

I'm dying to know all the answers - who's got 'em?! *giggle*

I'm stuck on the sugar thing - if alfalfa has no sugar, why do people limit it in horses at risk for founder or IR?

The calcium phosphorus ratio of alfalfa is the worry with feeding growing horses, as I understand, but this ratio doesn't hurt an adult healthy horse.

Enteroliths are a problem but how widespread? I wish I knew.

Thanks for bringing this up, something I'll be thinking and reading about!


Jeremyinc said...

did you know that alfalfa is also good for dogs? I recently posted a small blurb about the benefits of alfalfa for dogs thought you might like it.

Dolores Brown said...

Do you think alfalfa cubes actually taste good to the horses? I just looked up pictures of what they look like, and it's not very appetizing. I guess I'm not a horse, so maybe that's just me. http://MIDWAYFORAGE.COM

CarmelKat2011 said...

I loved your article! It gave me a lot of the answers I needed in regards to feeding my 2 large standard donkeys. I am not afraid to feed them alfalfa hay anymore,thank you. P.S. I really like your writing technique. Keep up the good work!

CarmelKat2011 said...

I loved your article! It gave me a lot of the answers I needed in regards to feeding my 2 large standard donkeys. I am not afraid to feed them alfalfa hay anymore,thank you. P.S. I really like your writing technique. Keep up the good work!

Pat said...

Thank you so much! I appreciate your encouraging words!