Drought, Heat Push Horse Feed Costs Skyward

Nationwide, the combination of very hot weather and persistent dry conditions continue to challenge horse owners with parched pastures and high hay and feed prices. Now, with no end to the drought and heat in sight, owners might have to rethink what they feed their horses.

On July 24 more nearly 54% of the United States was in moderate or worse drought conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. At the same time, more than 38% of the country was under severe drought conditions, and more than 17% was deemed in severe drought or worse.

The conditions have decimated corn and hay crops in many parts of the country, driving prices skyward. On July 26 corn costs rose to $7.86 a bushel and on July 23, at the Hay Auction in Arthur, Ill., premium Alfalfa hay sold for between $11.25 and $13.50 per bale, and good quality mixed grasse hay sold for between $6.25 and $11.25 per bale. (Editor's Note: For weekly updates on hay prices in different regions in the United States, visit www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/lswfeedseed.pdf.)

As high feed prices challenge horse owners, Bridgett McIntosh, PhD, assistant professor and horse extension specialist at the University of Tennessee, said horse owners might have to explore hay alternative options to keep their animals appropriately fed.

In order to maintain a healthy digestive system, horses should consume 1.5% to 2% of their bodyweight in roughage daily, McIntosh said. Generally, that roughage is derived from hay and pasture grass. Owners can stretch hay supplies and compensate for parched pastures by feeding high-fiber alternatives such as beet pulp, she said.

Available with or without molasses in either pelleted or shredded forms, beet pulp is widely available and nutritious, McIntosh said. "The nutrient content of beet pulp is similar to good quality forage and one pound of beet pulp has the same amount of calories as one pound of oats," she explained.

Soybean hulls are another option. A soybean processing by-product, soybean hull pellets have a similar nutrient composition as good quality hay and can be used to replace up to 75% of hay in a horse's diet, McIntosh said.

Whichever owners choose, McIntosh advises that the alternatives should be used to only to stretch--not replace--forage, and should be introduced into the horse's diet gradually.

"It's important to make these changes over a period of no less than a week to avoid digestive disorders," McIntosh said.

Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, associate professor in the Rutgers University Department of Animal Sciences, advises owners that while soy hulls and beet pulp are used in the formulation of many "complete" horse feeds, neither material is the sole source of fiber used in those formulated feeds.

"(Soy hulls and beet pulp) are only a source of fermentable fiber," Ralston said. "They are not complete forage substitutes."

Ralston advises owners that hay-based cubes represent an alternate source of forage for their horses: "Many regions of the country are not in severe drought, and the cubed products can be effectively used as forage substitutes as documented in numerous studies from all over the United States in the past 15 years."

Meanwhile, horses that derive most of their nutrition from pasture when it's lush might need help maintaining their body weight as the drought persists, said Carey Williams, PhD, extension specialist in equine management at Rutgers University. Owners might need to increase hay in pasture-kept horses' diets and/or supplement their charges' diets with concentrates to help animals maintain their weight, she said.

"The addition of a balancer pellet, which is a grain supplement with concentrated levels of protein, vitamins, and minerals will help balance what might be lacking in an all hay or other forage diet," Williams said.

With drought conditions expected to continue and possibly intensify well into fall, Williams advises owners plan ahead.

"I think the most important thing here is that horse owners don't wait until the last minute to get their winter hay," she said. "Hay might be at a shortage this year so getting and stocking up early would be wise."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.