Forage Fibre the Key to Winter Feeding

By Dr Simone Hoskin PhD (Animal Nutrition)

Whether you’re feeding an eventer or showjumper turned out for a winter rest, woolly pony club ponies, super-fit and clipped hunters or a dressage horse focussed on the local winter series, the principles of winter feeding remains the same.  It’s all about quality forage fibre!

The lower limit of daily forage intake for any horse is 1.5% of the horse’s body weight in forage dry matter (Harris et al., 2017).  This equates to 7.5kg dry matter for a 500kg horse, e.g. nearly half a bale of meadow hay.  When winter bites, 2-3% of body weight in forage dry matter should be fed.  Horses should have free access to forage fibre for an absolute minimum of 8, ideally 10 or more hours per day, but in winter this may need to be doubled.

Low pasture growth limits supply in winter, and combined with the low fibre, energy, mineral and often protein content of winter pasture, conserved forages are required to fill the pasture deficit.  Hay is most commonly used for winter feeding of horses, but the huge range in quality of hay or baleage leaves many horse owners guessing whether their forage is providing enough energy or protein unless it has been tested.  By the time you notice that your horse has lost weight in winter, it’s too late to recover that lost muscle in under 6 weeks.

So it’s best to plan your forage supplies well in advance.  Purchase and know the nutrient content of your bulk forage e.g. hay, well before winter starts as well as feeding highly digestible forage fibre like FiberProtect, FiberEzy or FiberMix in the feed bowl to boost protein and slow-release energy as required by the demands of each individual horse.

Forage protein requires special consideration for the equine athletes taking a break, to ensure muscle built up during the season can be maintained during a spell. For young growing horses it is important to prevent a growth check during winter and maintaining muscle mass is the key to longevity and soundness for old horses.  The supply of amino acids (building blocks of protein) is critical for maintenance or growth of muscle mass and topline, and to support the immune system challenged by winter ills.

If your horse requires additional energy added to the feedbowl, it’s easy to utilise a complete balanced forage-based feed such as FiberBoost, or add to the quality fibre already in the feedbowl some highly digestible concentrate (e.g. cooked formulated feed) at a ratio of 2:1 (forage fibre:concentrate) by weight, and only add a small amount of fat/oil, as using this energy source in winter can reduce the heat of digestion and if horses are not well adapted to fat/oil this can reduce fibre digestion.

So why is forage digestion and metabolism even more important in winter than at other times of the year?  Because the process of forage fibre digestion in the hind gut is what keeps horses warm.  Rugging, shelter or stabling can help keep horses warmer and reduce their energy requirements, but horses with wet heads and legs standing in mud can still lose a lot of heat even when well rugged. By utilising the natural central-heating power of the heat of fibre digestion and metabolism, you can keep your horses and ponies toasty warm on the inside using continuous slow-release energy.

Cereal grains or oils might be a more energy dense feed than forages, but they do not warm your horse.  Cereals and concentrates have a reputation for being ‘heating’, but this is in reference to horse behaviour, not their body temperature.  When bad weather suddenly increases energy demands for body warmth, to reduce risk of digestive upsets and colic, this should be supplied by increasing the highest quality forage fibre in the diet to which the horse is already adapted.

Even if your horse is a ‘good doer’ and keeps condition on in winter with almost no pasture and just plenty of mature meadow hay, a small feed of high quality forage fibre protein like FiberProtect with mineral/vitamin balancer will be required daily to meet nutrient requirements.  Even just 1-2kg of highly digestible fresh forage fibre like FiberProtect, FiberEzy or FiberMix will nourish the beneficial bacteria supporting gut microflora balance, where it has been recently discovered that 70-80% of the immune system resides.

So fuel your horse with Fiber Fresh this winter and have the added benefits of a healthy gut, powerful immune system, cool behaviour and a horse looking and feeling great for the coming spring season.