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Horse Need Different Feed Diets in Winter’s Cold Weather

When the weather turns chilly, we all think of rich, warming foods—hearty stews, meaty chili, and warm, freshly baked cookies. But the changing weather should also remind us that our horses have winter needs, too.
A horse’s dietary needs change with the colder weather. Many horse owners instinctively adjust the amount and type of feed they offer, without fully researching the science behind it. Common practices of adding extra corn, vegetable oil, grain, or hay to increase a horse’s caloric intake, however, can cause different concerns. Top-dressing with corn, which is often thought to have a warming effect, can increase the risk of colic. Extra vegetable oil or hay can alter the vitamin and mineral balance of the horse’s diet and adding extra grain can raise a horse’s grain intake to an unhealthy level.
Picture of horse eating in the snowA better method for winter feeding of hard-keeper horses can be to switch to a different feed blend with a higher fat guarantee. While a standard, basic feed will usually contain around 2.5% fat, other blends are available with fat contents from 4.5% to 8%. For especially cold climates or horses with other special needs, there are feed blends with up to 10% fat content. These higher-fat options provide a horse with the extra energy it needs to thrive through the winter.

Another option is supplementation with rice bran. By adding just one pound of rice bran a day, most horses will receive the extra calories they need. Two fifty-pound bags can last the entire winter, which also makes it economical. Most experts recommend beginning rice bran supplementation two to three weeks before the cold weather starts.

While adding additional hay is a common way to help horses through the winter, it can become expensive and deplete hay stores more rapidly than desired. Other forms of fiber supplementation can provide the fiber horses need.

Two sources of fiber that are not ideal, however, are alfalfa and beet pulp. Alfalfa fibers are too short to be an optimal fiber replacement. Beet pulp can be labor intensive, requiring soaking before feeding, and it lacks the necessary nutrients horses need. To improve fiber intake, alfalfa cubes (or cubes combining alfalfa with timothy) can be effective. Horses usually require approximately four to five pounds of alfalfa cubes daily or a similar amount of chopped forage for owners who don’t wish to feed their equines cubes.

Another good “fiber solution” is to utilize a complete feed. Complete feeds are formulated to meet all of a horse’s dietary and fiber needs in one blend, without additional hay or grain. They typically consist of an alfalfa or beet pulp base blended with vitamins, minerals, and grains, and work very well to extend hay supplies or as an alternative energy supplement to grains. However, most experts recommend that horses are occasionally given hay to increase their long-fiber intake, rather that totally relying on the feed.

There are a variety of complete feeds available today, but most are relatively low-energy blends. There are some newer brands, however, that offer higher energy value. Some feeds blend beet pulp and additional fat to make a complete feed that yields as much energy as many grain-based performance feeds. Another expanding segment of the complete feed market is the complete cube. Several brands are now designed specifically for maintenance and performance, and some specialize in nutrition for mares and foals. There are complete cube products that combine western alfalfa, timothy, high-quality grains, organic minerals, fat, and vitamins for a high-quality blend.

Also, remember that older horses have additional needs during the winter. Starting them on a specially designed geriatric diet in the fall, such as a high-fat, beet-pulp based feed can help them maintain weight during frigid weather. Look for one with a fat level of 7% or more, as it will provide the extra calories needed to keep older horses from losing weight during the winter.

When it is cold, horses will naturally spend more time inside their stalls. This leads to the need for increased odor control to prevent ammonia levels from becoming harmful to horses. Ammonia neutralizing products can greatly help to prevent ammonia-related respiratory issues caused by stall confinement.

And finally, remember that plenty of fresh water needs to be available to horses at all times. Keeping the water in the 45-to-65 degree range will make sure that it is not too cold to drink.

Read the next horse nutrition article on  Feeding Your Horse In Colder Weather.
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