Alfalfa is NOT Your Enemy, it's Actually a Good Friend
Updated: Jun 30
Hay is scarce this year, and Divide Feed’s longtime hay ranchers aren’t able to fill our barn, so we’re extending our reach and stocking up with hay from as many ranchers as will sell to us. We're committed to being able to provide hay for you and your horses. Right now (EDIT: not anymore, we did, but I wrote this a lil' while ago), we have a beautiful Timothy Alfalfa Mix from out near Durango. I know, I know… Divide Feed never carries a grass alfalfa mixed bale, but hey, it was green, it was dry, and it was for sale, so we bought it! I also know though, that many of you might be a bit hesitant to, or even downright against, feeding alfalfa to your horses; so I hope the information included here will ease your minds and open your eyes to the wonderful world of alfalfa.
First, let’s talk about the common reasons horse owners tend to be scared of feeding alfalfa, and put those myths to rest:
Myth #1: alfalfa will make my horse “hot”
This is a common misconception based upon the fact that alfalfa contains more protein than grass hay. While it is true that the protein content of alfalfa sits around 15-20%, it’s not uncommon for our Westcliffe timothy to come in with tests of up to 16% protein. Additionally, most commercial “complete feed” pelleted grains strive for a high protein content, and alfalfa is the easiest way to achieve this; so, if you’re feeding a feed such as Purina Equine Senior, there’s plenty of alfalfa based protein in your horse’s diet already. Another contributing factor to this myth is that alfalfa is high in sugar, but check out the comparison below between the sugar, starch, and percentage of nonstructural carbohydrates in alfalfa and cool season grasses such as timothy, orchard, and brome:
SOURCE SUGAR% STARCH% %NSC ALFALFA 8.9 2.5 11.5 GRASS 11.9 2.9 18.8
As you can see, alfalfa does not contain outrageously high levels of protein or sugar, and if fed, especially in moderation, will not make your horse hyper.
Myth #2: alfalfa causes kidney problems
Again, this myth is founded on the basis of alfalfa having a high protein content. But, a high protein diet does not itself cause kidney problems, disease, or failure. The only instance in which alfalfa would be a concern to a horse’s kidneys is if that horse already has a preexisting kidney condition.
Myth #3: alfalfa will cause my horse to founder
Back to alfalfa’s sugar content here, so reference the chart under Myth #1. “But wait, too much protein will cause a horse to founder too!” you say; well, we’re happy to report that this is a misconception as well. In fact, protein is absolutely vital to healing laminitis, so a diet supplemented with alfalfa is commonly prescribed by veterinarians for horses recovering from it. Metabolic horses (including those with PPID, EMS, PSSM, etc) benefit greatly from the high quality digestible protein in alfalfa; and including it as 20-25% of your horse’s daily forage will absolutely improve his overall health.
Myth #4: alfalfa will cause my horse to colic
We have here, undoubtedly, the scariest of the all the reasons not to feed alfalfa, but don’t worry, I’m about to make you feel much better...
Everybody has a story that adds clout to this myth, whether it was your own horse, or a friend's, so I won’t deny that yes, a horse fed a forage diet of alfalfa without a proper introduction period may colic. But think about it this way: if you’d eaten nothing but tofurkey for dinner for 10 years, then out of the blue ate a massive ribeye basted in butter, you probably wouldn’t feel so great either.
That didn’t make you feel any better? I know, sorry about that. Here’s the “feel good” part: It’s scientifically supported that a forage diet of 25% alfalfa is hugely beneficial to the vast majority of horses. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the one that pertains to this myth is that when introduced slowly, say starting at a percentage of 10-20%, the extra protein and calcium in alfalfa acts a buffering agent to stomach acid, preventing ulcers, which are a leading cause of colic. This means, that when fed properly, alfalfa not only doesn’t cause colic, it actually helps prevent it! See, I told you I’d make you feel better.
Now that we’ve dispelled those myths, let’s talk about a bunch of other awesome aspects of alfalfa:
Alfalfa contains a higher digestible fiber content and 25% more calories per pound than grass hay; which means more bang for your buck!
Due to alfalfa’s fiber solubility, it helps to keep fluid in the large intestine, keeping the hindgut well hydrated and preventing impaction.
Alfalfa contains a lot of lysine, that grass hay lacks. Lysine is the limiting amino acid in a horse’s diet. This means that if there’s not enough lysine available to your horse, he’ll use other amino acids to do its job, and then those amino acids can’t do the jobs they’re intended for. With a proper amount of lysine in your horse’s diet he’ll be more able to produce healthy hoof tissue, repair blood vessels, rebuild muscle, and create red blood cells. You’ll also notice he has a boosted immune system, healthy skin & coat, and optimal eye function.
Feel free to come on in to speak with us about feeding alfalfa if you have any other questions or concerns. James and Sue have both gotten a rundown and can answer basic questions, but if you’d like to have a more in depth chat, I’ll be in the store all day Monday-Wednesday.
About Lara: On top of her years of experience in horse husbandry, from managing small private facilities to large breeding and competition operations, Lara is currently studying Equine Nutrition through the University of Edinburgh.
About Nathan: In addition to owning Divide Feed, Nathan owns and operates a private ranch, where he cares for his own horses, as well as Lara’s, and some broodmares and their fillies. Over the years he’s developed and implemented an innovative free feeding system called The Hay House and is a constant student of equine nutritional needs.
Together, Nathan & Lara work hard to put their combined knowledge into practice with their own herd through continued research, education, and application. They’ve created a feeding program (the Divide Feeding Program) that not only keeps their horses healthy, but that they can pass on to all of the amazing customers at Divide Feed.