Horse Hay Alternatives

If high-quality hay is in short supply, here are some other options for providing your horse with essential roughage.

Protein Boosters

When feeding straw or low protein, stockpiled hay, choose from the following to balance your horse’s diet.
Soybean meal-2 oz. per pound of straw, 1.5 to 2 oz. per pound of low protein hay
Alfalfa hay, meal or cubes-6 oz. per pound of straw, 4 to 6 oz. per pound of low protein hay
Dried split peas*-4 oz. per pound of straw, 3 to 4 oz. per pound of low protein hay Ground stabilized flaxseed meal**-4 oz. per pound of straw, 3 to 4 oz. per pound of low protein hay
Providing protein from several different sources is a good way to make sure the horse receives a variety of essential amino acids.
* Dried split peas are the same as the ones you can buy in the market for making pea soup, but in some areas of the country they may be available in bulk. Check with local mills that mix their own feeds. They are used in feeds for other livestock, and are a favorite in horse feeds in many parts of the world. Horses love them and they are a good low sugar, high fiber (25%) and high protein (25%) food.
** Flaxseed is also rich in essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) and in proportions closest to those in fresh grass. You can find products at and and can special order in bulk from Uckele Animal Health,

Unfavorable weather conditions can result in hay shortages, sending the cost of available hay through the roof. With gasoline prices so high, shipping in hay from areas of plenty may not be a viable option either. Shortages of good grass hay may be particularly severe since many grasses have a shorter growing season than, say, alfalfa. In some areas, grass meadows may yield only one cutting under the best of circumstances.

This calls for some creative changes in the way you feed. But before getting to some possibilities, there are two things that you should not do:

Do not simply replace hay with more grain. The horse’s metabolism and intestinal tract are designed to run on fiber, not grain. Hay is more than just roughage. It is food both for the beneficial organisms in the intestinal tract and for the horse’s own body, and a natural source of precursors for vitamin A, D and K.

Unless your fields are in good shape, do not allow for more pasture time to make up for less hay. If the fields are also in poor shape because of adverse weather, the horses will be driven to eat things they would normally avoid, including toxic plants.

Now, on to some alternatives:
Grass hay pellets or cubes are simply hay that has been carefully dried, then cut and compressed. It can be fed as an alternative to loose hay. And because the hay is high quality, you can often feed less than you do of regular hay (up to 25% less). The drawback is cost and horses consume them much quicker than loose hay so may develop vices like wood chewing because they have too much time with nothing to do. Bagged loose, chopped forage is also available in many areas, often with a light coating of oil or molasses. Mineral balancing/supplementation will be needed just like it is with baled hay, unless you use one of the newer complete balanced hay-based products such as Ontario Dehy’s Balanced Timothy Pellet ( available in the U.S.), Sterett Bros. Low Carb Complete Pelleted Feed ( Northwest and California) or Triple Crown’s Safe Starch (

Complete feeds or senior feeds are safer to substitute than straight grains, but they do still contain considerable grain in most cases. One with a fiber level of at least 18% and beet pulp in the formula will be the best. To determine the substitution rate, see the box “Converting Over to Complete Feeds” on page 14.

Substitute alfalfa hay or alfalfa cubes, pellets or meal for a portion of your grass hay. A 75:25 mixture of alfalfa and wheat bran is well balanced for major minerals, and a pound of this substitutes for up to 2 pounds of average grass hay. In other words, you’ll go from feeding 20 pounds of grass hay to feeding 10 pounds of grass hay along with 5 pounds of 75:25 alfalfa/wheat bran as a starting point. A 50-50 mixture of alfalfa and oats can also be used, is well balanced, and a pound of this also substitutes for about 2 pounds of grass hay.

Converting Over to Complete or Senior Feeds

If you plan to substitute a bagged complete or senior feed entirely for hay, begin by feeding 20%- 25% of the recommended amount, cutting hay by the same percentage. Increase by the same amount every three days until your horse is completely switched over to the complete feed. Check with your vet or nutritionist to see if any supplements are needed with the feed (such as vitamin E, selenium, or iodine).

If you are only going to replace part of your hay with a “complete” feed, first see what the recommended feeding amount is when it is used as the sole dietary component. Then compare this to how much hay you are feeding. For example, if the feed calls for 15 pounds per day for a horse the same size as yours, and you currently feed 20 pounds of hay, three-quarters of a pound of the complete feed will substitute for 1 pound of hay. If you want to cut your hay down to 10 pounds per day, substitute 7.5 pounds of the complete feed.

Beet pulp can be fed as up to 40% of the ration and adds calories in the form of easily fermentable fibers rather than high sugar, starch or fat. Substitute at a rate of 1 pound of beet pulp for 1.5 to 2 pounds of hay because of its higher calorie content. Beet pulp is a nice complement for hays that tend to be low in calcium, with a low calcium to phosphorus ratio, like oat hay or orchardgrass. Otherwise, you should add a high phosphorus source to the beet pulp to avoid introducing mineral imbalances. A 50:50 mixture of plain oats and beet pulp works well. Or try an 80:20 mixture of beet pulp and wheat bran. Beet pulp also absorbs up to four times its weight in water, producing a very large and satisfying meal.

Clean, sweet-smelling straw-although we don’t usually think of it as a food-actually contains almost as many calories as an average grass hay. In a pinch, you can even replace hay entirely with straw, but you will need to feed more pounds of it in order for your horses to hold their weight. Straw is also lower in protein and minerals than hay, and particularly low in phosphorus. To correct this, feed one, or a blend of, the protein boosters from the list on page 12, and use a mineral supplement formulated to complement alfalfa hay such as Race VM from or Select I from

As a final note, all feeding changes should be made gradually. Substitute no more than 20% of your horse’s ration at a time, increasing the amount at three-day intervals to allow the gut to adapt.

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