Ensuring your horse is getting the energy, vitamins, and minerals it needs to thrive is essential, which is why knowing the advantages of various types of horse feed is crucial. Alfalfa is a popular ingredient within horse nutrition all over the world – but what are the benefits? From energy without starch to the vitamins and trace minerals it can offer, read on to find out why alfalfa may be the best option for your horse.
What’s the difference between grass hay and alfalfa?
If you own or care for a horse, the likelihood is that you’ll have heard of alfalfa, but how much do you know about it? Whilst many may think it’s just recently discovered; alfalfa has been used for thousands of years. The term ‘alfalfa’ originates from the Persian, Arabic, and Kashmiri words that literally mean ‘best horse fodder’ and ‘horsepower’.
Alfalfa is classed as a legume, meaning it belongs to the same family as beans and peas. Its extensive roots allow for it to tap into water deep in the soil, as well as minerals, making it a highly nutritious crop that’s also beneficial for soil health. Alfalfa does not require additional fertilisers and provides inter-ground cover to reduce soil tillage.
So, how is it different from hay? Grass hay tends to contain lower energy levels than alfalfa, which means it’s more commonly used for horses that are in light work or watching their weight. Alfalfa is typically used as a way of introducing higher energy into a horse’s diet without having to introduce or increase cereal-based feeds. Grass hay also contains less protein compared to alfalfa.
What are the benefits of feeding alfalfa?
Alfalfa is packed with benefits for a horse’s health, so let’s explore them in more detail to help you make an informed decision.
Energy Without Starch
Providing your horse with a sufficient energy supply is essential, especially if they’re performance horses, currently in training, or working each day. This can potentially pose an issue, as high-starch feeds – like cereals– can provide energy, but too much can lead to digestive issues like ulcers, insulin resistance and laminitis. Feeding a lot of high-starch feeds can also lead to weight gain.
Alfalfa has a low starch content due to its composition – it stores excess sugar as starch in roots which horses don’t eat, unlike grass. Starch is a complex carbohydrate that can contribute to rapid energy spikes, which is not ideal for performance horses. Low starch content allows horse owners to feed alfalfa as an alternative to grains to provide a good source of energy without having to worry about the related concerns that come with starch. The energy that alfalfa provides can be enhanced with the addition of oil – this keeps the sugar content below 5% whilst still providing a high level of energy at 12.5MJ DE per KG; ideal for horses in moderate to hard work.
High-Quality Protein Source
Horses require protein in feed to support growth and rebuild muscle, particularly for horses exposed to hard work or with a rigorous training regime. Alfalfa contains a rich and balanced array of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. They are crucial for tissue repair, muscle development and overall health. The amino acid profile in alfalfa allows your horse’s protein needs to be met easily without the need for concentrated feeds. This can be beneficial for horses that are starch-sensitive or those requiring a controlled diet. Another benefit that comes with feeding alfalfa as a protein source is that because it’s highly digestible, the amino acids are absorbed and utilised effectively by the horse’s body for improved maintenance and growth.
Rich in Natural Minerals
Alfalfa is a valuable forage that contains a range of essential vitamins and minerals, which are crucial for the health and well-being of horses. Adding alfalfa to your horse’s feed means they have access to natural nutrients particularly calcium for bone and teeth development, phosphorus which works in conjunction with calcium to support bone health, energy metabolism, and a range of other cellular processes, along with magnesium and potassium.
As well as these essential vitamins, alfalfa contains a range of trace minerals of which levels tend to be low in UK soils, so supplementation is crucial to keep your horse in top condition. Micro-minerals support important functions around the body, such as antioxidants crucial for dealing with the effects of exercise on the body. An example of these essential minerals include:
- Iron: Vital for oxygen transport around the blood, this mineral also plays a role in energy metabolism and immune function.
- Copper: An important mineral for the formation of connective tissues.
- Zinc: This trace mineral is involved in enzymatic reactions, immune function, and wound healing.
Selenium: This mineral acts as an antioxidant that is essential for thyroid function and immune system support.