For The Love of Alfalfa

It’s a tremendous taste tempter. Many horses will go for aromatic alfalfa before they even touch their grain. We’ve used “alfalfa tea” as a flavoring for picky horses and to encourage consumption of otherwise bland meals, like beet pulp. Put a handful of alfalfa pellets or leaves into a tall plastic container with 1 cup of water and microwave on high for 2 to 4 minutes, until the water begins to turn green and is boiling. Stir and allow to cool. A little goes a long way mixed into feed.

Benefits Of Alfalfa
• Calcium: If your horse’s diet is short on calcium, a pound of alfalfa provides 6 to 7 grams of calcium. Even after considering the phosphorus naturally present in alfalfa and the need to balance that, you can count on at least 5 grams of extra, “free” calcium per pound of alfalfa.

• Protein: At 14 to 21% protein, just 1 pound provides from 64 to 93 grams of protein = from 6.5 to almost 10% of the total daily protein requirement of an 1,100-lb. horse in moderate work, and 8.6 to 12.5% of the total daily protein requirement of a weanling that will mature to that size.

• Treats: Alfalfa pellets or cubes are a good alternative to high sugar or starch horse treats.


1) Alfalfa prevents developmental bone and joint problems because it’s high in calcium.

False. While calcium deficiency can certainly be a problem, it’s not the only nutrient involved. All minerals must be present in balanced and correct amounts to avoid bone and joint problems.

2) Alfalfa causes developmental bone and joint problems because it’s high in protein.

False. High protein does not cause these problems in young horses, but inadequate protein will, as will overfeeding the calories that go along with commercial high protein feeds.

3) Lactating broodmares need alfalfa because of the high calcium.

True and false. They do need more calcium to produce milk, but they need more than just calcium. Requirements for all minerals go up in lactating mares. Alfalfa alone can’t meet those needs.

4) Alfalfa will fatten a horse.

True. However, it’s no worse than anything else the horse eats. The calorie content of alfalfa isn’t much different from quality grass hay. However, it’s often easier to chew and more palatable.

5) Alfalfa may cause enteroliths.

True, but not in every horse. A diet consisting entirely of alfalfa can lead to more alkaline conditions in the colon, less fiber, higher concentrations of minerals and predispose to enteroliths. However, inclusion of grain or an acidifier (e.g., vinegar) in the diet, and feeding grass hay or pasture in addition to the alfalfa corrects these conditions.

6) Alfalfa may cause laminitis.

True, but not in every horse. Many horses are fed alfalfa their entire lives without ever having a problem with laminitis, and there are even horses prone to laminitis that tolerate it well. However, some horses are sensitive to alfalfa and become laminitic on it. The reason for this is not clear.

7) Alfalfa may make a horse “hot.”

True, but not every horse. This is a similar situation to laminitis. Some, but far from all, horses respond to alfalfa in their diet by becoming obviously more energetic. Again, the reason for this is not clear.

8) Alfalfa is hard on the kidneys.

False. Because alfalfa is high in protein, the horse may end up receiving more total protein in his diet than he needs and the metabolites of this high protein intake are excreted in urine, making urine output higher than normal, but this is not harmful to normal kidneys.