Quality Hay Alternatives for Your Horse

A prolonged drought, as occurred in many areas of the country this past summer, will drastically decrease the hay availability, driving the price up — if you can even find any in your area to purchase. Many local farmers will be forced to keep all the hay they’ve baled for their own livestock, eliminating hay sales for the year.

You may be forced to search for hay in adjoining states, but prices will probably be sky-high due to both shipping costs — think gasoline — and, of course, everyday price gouging. You’ll also have to be on the alert for hays over a year old appearing on the market. These hays are faded, overly dry and lack that nice hay scent. If you’re tempted to buy old hay, thinking it’s better than nothing, be careful.

Mold growth increases exponentially with time, even in hays that were initially well cured. In addition, the breakdown of the leafier tissues contributes to fine hay dust, a significant respiratory irritant. This crumbling often results in the most nutritious portions of the hay falling to the ground when you open the bale or load it into the rack. Molds and bacteria insidiously rob the hay of protein and of carbohydrates until moisture levels drop too low to support their growth. Vitamin A levels plummet in old hays, too, and you may need to increase vitamin and mineral supplementation.

Hay is the most important thing you feed your horse, plus it’s a great boredom buster. KERx Re-Leve features a high fat, low starch combination that will work well for many horses. Farnam Platform Senior has an excellent fiber level at 19%. If you’re short on hay, try to feed it at the times the horse might need the distraction, such as to stop him from chewing on wood fencing. Blue Seal Feeds’ Vintage Senior is a moderate-fiber, high-fat choice.


Bagged Hay: Pelleted or cubed hay is the closest to baled. In fact, it’s identical except for particle size. Cubed hay has a longer particle size and will remain in the stomach, helping to buffer acid, longer than pelleted hays. It also ferments more slowly in the hind gut.

Most large feed/farm stores carry some type of hay pellet or cube, often a variety. If they don’t, they can almost certainly special order it for you. Talk to the store manager and the region distributor, if necessary.

Explain that you prefer a grass hay pellet, or mixed grass and alfalfa rather than straight alfalfa if you’ll be using large amounts. This is simply because alfalfa is more difficult to balance nutritionally, especially the major minerals, calcium and phosphorus. Once you have located a source, you can contact the manufacturer directly and ask for average analysis figures so that you can pick a supplement that best complements the product (see our article in December 2007).


Hay pellets and cubes have a long shelf life, as long as baled hays — a bit longer, actually, since they’re bagged and more protected. You might also get away with feeding up to 20 to 25% less, by weight, than you did with loose hays because there is less waste and somewhat higher digestibility.

The major drawback here is price. Prices vary by region, the type of product and how far it was shipped, but, in general, cubes and pellets will cost about twice what baled hay does in a normal year of hay supplies.

Straw: You’ve probably noticed long ago that may horses eat straw. This isn’t just a matter of boredom or ”being a pig.”

Straw can have a significant level of simple sugars and starches that make it taste good.

Most people think of straw as nothing but roughage with no nutritional value, but this isn’t true. Straw is surprisingly good as a calorie source. Oat straw, for example, contains about 80% of the calories as oat hay.

Protein takes a hard hit, though, coming in at only around 50% as high as hays. Minerals are somewhat lower than in hays, and oat straw (most digestible) is particularly low in calcium. A strong plus in favor of straw is that the high fiber content makes it slowly move through the gut and slow to ferment. Your horse will have a full, satisfied feeling.


For short-term feeding during shortage situations, select a clean, fresh smelling, mold-free oat straw. To correct the protein and mineral problems, feed 0.75 to 1 lb. of alfalfa pellets or cubes per pound of straw. This is likely to be significantly less expensive than relying on only hay cubes or pellets.

To boost the efficiency of fermentation of this high-fiber diet, consider adding Ration Plus (www.rationplus.com, 800-728-4667) or another good probiotic supplement. Note: Straw feeding isn’t an option for horses with difficulty chewing or weanlings that don’t yet have efficient fermentation capacities.

Beet Pulp: This is a hay-stretcher option that will work for all age groups and is calorie dense to boot. Most horses do well on beet pulp. Despite whatever rumors you may have heard or read, beet pulp won’t add excessive sugar and starch calories to the ration, and works well in horses with dental problems. Beet pulp is highly fermentable in the equine hind gut.

You can figure on beet pulp providing about twice as many calories as your regular hay, so for every 10 lbs. of hay the horse was getting, you can substitute 5 lbs. of hay and 2.5 lbs. (dry weight) of beet pulp. Since beet pulp can soak up as much as four times its weight in water, your horse actually ends up eating more pounds and will feel satisfied.


Mineral problems with beet pulp are the opposite of straw. It’s too heavy on calcium. You can balance this by feeding 50:50 whole oats and beet pulp, or adding 2 oz. of rice bran (no calcium added), 4 oz. of wheat bran or 6 to 8 oz. of ground stabilized flaxseed to each pound of beet pulp.

These adjustments do increase the calorie intake even further though so reduce the total amount accordingly. For example, as a starting point when going from 10 lbs. of hay, substitute 5 lbs. of hay 2 lbs. of one of the mixtures. After you soak the beet pulp portion, the total pounds taken in will actually be higher than the 10 lbs. of hay you started with. Adjust up or down as needed.

Complete Feeds: Using complete feeds and/or a blend of hays and/or beet pulp with grains/complete feeds are all good options when hay is in short supply. The use of a complete feed is most appropriate for a horse that’s accustomed to receiving grain in his daily diet (25% or more on a weight basis) because the products do rely substantially on grains.


The higher the fiber content on the label, the more fiber-based the complete feed is. There is a huge variation between brands, so read labels carefully. The most roughage-based complete feeds will contain close to 20% fiber. Complete feeds also often rely pretty heavily on fat to boost their calorie content. To locate a brand of complete feet that is closest to hay look for:

• Fat 3.5% or lower.

• Fiber close to 20%.

Look for feeding recommendations that call for close to 1.5% of the horse’s body weight at maintenance, which would be approximately 16.5 lbs. of feed for an 1100-lb. horse.

Remember that if you’re using a complete or senior feed that contains grains and only partially substituting for hay, you must also reduce the grain fed. For example, if you substitute the feed for half of your hay ration, cut the grain in half, too.

Bottom Line

Your best bet, if possible, when you simply can’t find traditional baled hay is to substitute hay pellets, bagged hay or hay cubes. These can all be wet down and made softer for chewing, especially for older horses and those prone to choke. Cubes, especially, can be extremely hard and may not be the best bet for very old or very young horses. For these horses, a complete feed might be your better choice.

The advantage of a complete commercial feed is that protein, vitamin and mineral concerns have been addressed for you. The ideal way to use them is as their name implies — as a complete diet. However, you need to consider how the feed compares to what the horse was getting before.

If no grain was being fed, choose a complete feed with low-fat, high-fiber, high-feeding rate. Nutrena Kwik, Wrangler Complete and LMF Taco are excellent choices, with Nutrena Kwik by a nose for our top pick, with its low fat level of 2% and fiber at 20%.

If you can still feed some hay and your horse was getting about 20 to 25% of his daily diet, by weight, from grains, look for a complete feed that recommends feeding with hay and has a low recommended total daily feeding amount for maintenance (10 lbs. or less). We like Wrangler Complete and KERx Re-Leve best for these horses.

Note: Our chart lists senior and complete feeds that we found had a fairly wide national distribution. Commercial grains/feeds tend to be regional, so you may not find all of these products in your area. If this occurs, bring this article to your feed dealer and tell him or her that you want to find a complete feed that closely matches whichever national brand you’ve decided best suits your needs. You may also be able to do the work yourself by calling local feed manufacturers directly. Most manufacturers have a nutritionist to help you choose a product.

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