Alfalfa Hay For Horses: An Ultimate Guide For Horse Owners

alfalfa hay for horses

Alfalfa hay is a popular type of hay and is especially beneficial for horses requiring extra nutrition, such as young, growing, or performance horses. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the importance of alfalfa in a horse’s diet, delve into its nutritional value, discuss various alfalfa products, and provide expert advice on feeding guidelines and customization for specific needs. 

What Is Alfalfa Hay For Horses?

Alfalfa hay is a high-protein forage option for horses that is particularly rich in calcium and has a higher caloric content compared to grass hays.

This makes it an excellent choice for young, growing horses, pregnant or lactating mares, and performance horses with increased energy demands. 

However, due to its nutrient-dense nature, it is important to feed alfalfa hay in moderation and balance it with other forages and feeds to prevent nutritional imbalances.

Below we’ll dive into a more detailed look at its nutritional composition, key benefits, and feeding guidelines.

Nutritional Composition Of Alfalfa Hay

Compared to other common forages, like grass, timothy, and brome hay, alfalfa stands out for its higher calorie, protein, and calcium content.

As you can see from the chart below, it has significantly higher protein content (15-22%), making it an excellent choice for supporting muscle development and repair, especially in young, growing, and athletic horses. 

Additionally, Alfalfa is notably richer in calcium, which is essential for maintaining strong bones, supporting vision, immune health, and providing antioxidant protection. 

This hay is also calorically dense, which is beneficial for weight gain and helps performance horses stay in top condition. 

NutrientAlfalfa HayTimothy HayBermuda Grass HayOrchard Grass HayOat Hay
Crude Protein15.0% – 22.0%6.0% – 10.0%7.0% – 10.0%7.0% – 11.0%8.0% – 10.0%
Crude Fiber25.0%30%28%30%28%
Calcium1.28%0.38%0.43%0.34%0.29%
Phosphorus0.24%0.17%0.16%0.23%0.23%
Energy ContentHighModerateModerateModerateModerate

However, these are general averages, and it’s important to remember that the nutritional composition of the hay you feed depends on the following additional factors:

  • Growth Stage: Younger alfalfa, harvested at an earlier growth stage, tends to have higher protein and lower fiber content compared to more mature alfalfa.
  • Cut Number: The number of cuts or harvests in a growing season can affect the nutritional value. The first cut usually has more stem, leading to higher fiber content, while later cuts typically have more leaves, resulting in higher protein and energy levels.
  • Leaf-to-Stem Ratio: The proportion of leaves to stems in alfalfa hay affects its nutritional quality. Leaves are richer in protein, vitamins, and minerals, while stems contain more fiber. A higher leaf-to-stem ratio indicates better nutritional value.
  • Moisture Conditions: The moisture conditions during growth and at harvest time can impact the nutritional composition. Too much moisture can lead to mold and nutrient loss, while too little can result in leaf shatter and loss of nutritious leaf material.
  • Processing Methods: How alfalfa is processed into hay, pellets, or cubes can alter its nutritional content. Drying methods, chopping, and pelleting can affect the preservation of nutrients and the overall digestibility of the alfalfa.

Key Benefits of Alfalfa for Horses

Here are a few of the key benefits of alfalfa hay that make it an excellent forage for many horses.

1. Aids Weight Gain

Alfalfa is perhaps best known for helping horses gain weight due to its high caloric content. In fact, it has the highest caloric content of any type of hay as demonstrated in the table below. 

Hay TypeCaloric Content (Mcal/lb)Caloric Content (Kcal/kg)
Alfalfa Hay0.9 – 1.22,000 – 2,500
Timothy Hay0.8 – 1.01,800 – 2,200
Orchard Grass Hay0.8 – 1.01,800 – 2,200
Bermuda Grass Hay0.8 – 1.01,800 – 2,200
Fescue Hay0.7 – 0.91,500 – 2,000
Brome Hay0.7 – 0.91,500 – 2,000

Many studies have also proven that alfalfa hay is highly effective at aiding weight gain.

For example, a research study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science studied two groups of yearlings – one group was fed alfalfa hay and the other, bermuda grass hay. The yearlings fed alfalfa gained 89.30kgs versus those fed bermuda gained 71.6kgs over 112 days.

Another reason alfalfa hay is excellent for gaining weight is that it is highly digestible.

High digestibility means that your horse will absorb a higher percentage of the nutrients they consume.

Given that they absorb more of what they consume, they’ll also gain weight faster. 

Plenty of studies also prove that alfalfa hay is highly digestible. For example, a study that fed 6 Quarter Horses either long-stem bermuda grass hay, long-stem alfalfa hay or alfalfa cubes, found that digestibility was highest for the long-stem alfalfa hay.

In fact, here’s how alfalfa hay digestibility compared to the other two types of hay:

Another benefit of high digestibility is that you can feed less and the horse will receive the same nutritional benefits. 

If your goal is to put weight on your horse, feeding an earlier cutting of alfalfa will also help, as early-bloom alfalfa has 2.4 Mcal digestible energy per kilogram, whereas and full-bloom alfalfa has a little less with 2.1 Mcal digestible energy. 

2. Low in Carbohydrates 

Alfalfa has a lower non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) (carb) content compared to many grass hays, making it beneficial for metabolic horses. 

Alfalfa’s lower carb content helps slow down sugar absorption, which helps manage insulin levels. A study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science supported this showing that when feeding two diets at the same rate, the meal with the lower amount in NSC resulted in a lower glucose and insulin response.

For horses who suffer from chronic laminitis or other metabolic disorders, it is recommended to keep NSC below 10–12 percent, alfalfa has about 11%.

This makes alfalfa a great choice for metabolic horses, as it helps them maintain stable blood sugar levels. 

Soaking hay prior to feeding further reduces carbohydrate content. 

In a study that tested the different soaking times, they found that 15 minutes of soaking washed out the water-soluble carbohydrates, but it also washed out many other minerals and nutrients.

Therefore, soaking it might be a good option if you’re feeding a metabolic horse, though it may also wash out some of the important nutrients and minerals.

3. Protects Against Ulcers

Compared to other types of hay, alfalfa hay is high in calcium. 

Calcium increases pH in the stomach, which balances the acidity in the stomach and can ultimately prevent ulcers.

The calcium content varies depending on the bloom stage in which it was cut, but here’s an overview of how it compares to orchard grass hay at different stages:

Hay TypeBloom StageCalcium Content
AlfalfaEarly Bloom1.41%
AlfalfaMid Bloom1.37%
AlfalfaLate Bloom1.19%
Orchard GrassEarly Bloom0.27%
Orchard GrassLate Bloom0.26%

This has also been proven in multiple studies, such as one conducted by Nadeau et al. (2000), which observed a significant decrease in ulcer severity in horses fed alfalfa compared to those on a grain-based diet. 

4. Rich in Essential Vitamins And Minerals

Alfalfa is renowned for its nutritional density, offering a rich source of essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins, which can improve bone health, vision, and muscle development. 

Below is an overview of its vitamin and mineral profile compared to other types of hay. 

You can easily see that it has much higher magnesium and potassium content than other types of hays. Magnesium is beneficial for the body responding to insulin, which can be supportive to metabolic horses. 

Potassium is an electrolyte that is important for muscle contraction and relaxation. 

It also has significantly more vitamin A and E than any other type of hay. 

Vitamin A is well known for its beneficial role in vision, especially night vision. A deficiency in vitamin A results in a poor hair coat, reproductive and respiratory infections, night blindness, excessive tearing of the eyes, weight loss, and diarrhea. 

In a study that fed horses alfalfa, tall fescue or caucasian bluestem hay, it was found that horses fed alfalfa had higher concentrations of vitamin A.

Vitamin E works with selenium to rid the body of free radicals (cellular waste) that are produced during cellular reactions in the body. Vitamin E deficiency can cause muscle weakness and wasting, infertility, and inflammation. A study published by the AVMA stated that among the commonly fed hays, alfalfa contains the highest vitamin E concentration, whereas grass hay contains the lowest.

NutrientAlfalfa HayTimothy HayOrchard Grass HayBermuda Grass Hay
Phosphorus (%)0.2-0.3%0.2-0.3%0.2-0.3%0.1-0.2%
Magnesium (%)0.2-0.3%0.1-0.2%0.1-0.2%0.1-0.2%
Potassium (%)1.5-2.0%1.0-1.5%1.0-1.5%0.5-1.0%
Vitamin A (IU/lb)6,500-9,0002,000-5,0003,000-6,0001,000-4,000
Vitamin E (IU/lb)150-25050-150100-20050-150

This also means that you can feed a smaller quantity of hay, which can save you money and prevent horses from wasting hay.

5. High In Protein

Alfalfa is also high in protein, which is helpful for muscle building, hormones, immune system, the transport of nutrients and so much more. This makes it an ideal choice for pregnant mares and equine athletes, as they require more protein than the traditional horse.

Here’s how alfalfa hay’s protein content compares to other types of hays:

Hay TypeCrude Protein Content (%)
Alfalfa Hay18.7%
Timothy Hay7-11%
Orchard Grass Hay7-10%
Bermuda Grass Hay8-12%
Fescue Hay7-11%
Brome Hay8-10%

In general, earlier bloom alfalfa tends to have a slightly higher protein percentage than late bloom alfalfa. 

Bloom StageCrude Protein (%)
Early Bloom19.9%
Mid Bloom18.7%
Late Bloom17.0%

6. Palatability is Pleasing for Picky Eaters

Alfalfa’s palatability is often favored by horses, making it an excellent choice for picky eaters. 

As a result, horses tend to waste less hay and consume the nutrients they need.

Ideal Use Cases For Feeding Alfalfa Hay

Pregnant And Lactating Mares

According to the Kentucky Equine Research team, lactating mares require twice as many calories as idle horses, placing them in the same category of needs as intensely worked horses. 

Pregnant mares also require more calories than the average horse, which makes alfalfa an ideal option for them.

In addition, alfalfa is high in calcium and protein, which is crucial for the proper formation of the foal’s bones and tissues, and for producing quality colostrum and milk during lactation. 

The hay’s abundant amino acid content, including lysine which is vital for growth, further ensures that the developing foal receives the necessary building blocks for optimal growth and development. 

Additionally, alfalfa’s higher vitamin content, particularly vitamin A, is essential for reproduction and overall health.

Athletes And Underweight Horses

Alfalfa hay is also beneficial for athletic horses and those that are underweight as it’s significantly higher in calories than other types of hay. 

It is also rich in protein, which aids muscle development, repair, and maintenance.

Most horses also like the taste of alfalfa hay, which can help underweight picky eaters gain weight.

The hay’s high fiber content also promotes proper digestive function, which helps horses effectively utilize the nutrients they consume. However, it is important to introduce alfalfa gradually into the diet and balance it with other forages and feeds to prevent nutritional imbalances and ensure that the horse receives a comprehensive and balanced diet.

Horses With Metabolic Disorders

Alfalfa hay is beneficial for horses with metabolic disorders and those prone to tying up because of its low non-structural carbohydrates. 

Forages with 10-12% or less carbohydrates are usually considered safe for horses with metabolic diseases, and alfalfa hay falls well within that range at 11%.

Carbohydrates eventually circulate in the blood as glucose, and we know that glucose triggers insulin.

Therefore, insulin resistant horses will have trouble reducing their blood glucose levels. 

Recent studies have shown that a higher protein diet can spike blood glucose levels in healthy horses, so horses with insulin problems should limit their high protein meals. 

Feeding Guidelines

A mature horse that is working will eat about 2-2.5% of its body weight per day. 

For a 500kg horse that is 22.5-28.1 pounds per day. Most owners go for a mix of grass hay and alfalfa for their horses that do not need the high protein and calories as a large portion of the diet, and you get the benefits of both hays in the mix. 

Most forages with alfalfa are formulated at 20% alfalfa content. 

This would be about 5 pounds of alfalfa per day. For a horse in light work or less, 2 pounds of alfalfa per day would be recommended. 

Types of Alfalfa Products

The three main types of alfalfa products include alfalfa hay, pellets, and cubes. Here are some key differences between these three products.

Alfalfa Hay

Alfalfa hay is the plant in its most natural dried form, holding a wealth of nutrients. It can be purchased in bales, and is traditionally fed in flakes.

When comparing it to alfalfa pellets and cubes, hay is less processed, retaining more of its original structure and nutritional value. 

Alfalfa Pellets

Alfalfa pellets are created by grinding the hay and forming it into small, compact pellets. This form is particularly beneficial for consistent nutritional content and ease of feeding, with less waste and dust. 

Unlike alfalfa hay, pellets are more processed, but they offer convenience in measurement and storage, and they’re less likely to develop mold. 

Alfalfa Cubes

Alfalfa cubes are larger, compressed versions of the pellets, made from ground alfalfa hay. These cubes are especially handy for older horses with dental issues, as they can be soaked to make chewing easier. 

While they share the convenience of pellets, the larger size of cubes makes them suitable for soaking, aiding in hydration, which differentiates them from both alfalfa hay and pellets. If you have an older horse, are traveling, or are looking for a soakable option to aid in hydration, alfalfa cubes could be your best bet.

The Cost of Alfalfa Hay

When considering the cost of alfalfa hay compared to other types of forage, several factors come into play. 

Here’s a comparison table that provides a general overview of the cost of various forages, including alfalfa hay, priced by bale according to the USDA:

Type of ForageAverage Cost per Bale (USD)
Alfalfa Hay$10 – $20
Timothy Hay$7 – $15
Brome Hay$6 – $12
Grass Hay$5 – $10

Please note that these prices are averages and can vary depending on location, quality, and availability. For the most accurate and up-to-date pricing, refer to the USDA Market News Reports.

Variables Impacting Cost of Alfalfa Hay:

  • Location: The cost of alfalfa hay can vary significantly depending on the region due to differences in production costs, availability, and demand.
  • Quality: Higher quality alfalfa, with more leaves and less stem, is typically priced higher due to its increased nutritional value.
  • Season: Prices can fluctuate based on the time of year, with costs typically rising during winter months when availability is lower.
  • Fuel Prices: The cost of transportation, influenced by fuel prices, can impact the final price of alfalfa hay.
  • Market Demand: High demand for alfalfa hay can drive up prices, especially in regions where it is a preferred forage.

Understanding the cost variables and comparing the prices of different forages can help horse owners make informed decisions based on both nutritional needs and budget. It’s also essential to consider the quality and nutritional value of the forage, not just the price, to ensure the health and well-being of your horses.

Potential Risks and Considerations Of Alfalfa Hay

While alfalfa hay has many benefits, there are still some risk factors to consider before feeding it to your horse.

1. High Phosphorus To Calcium Ratio

The phosphorus to calcium ratio in alfalfa hay is typically around 1:6, meaning alfalfa hay has about six times as much calcium as phosphorus. 

The ideal calcium to phosphorus ratio in a horse’s diet generally ranges from 1:1 to 2:1.

This imbalance can interfere with the absorption and metabolism of other minerals. For example, a high calcium intake can inhibit the absorption of magnesium and potentially lead to magnesium deficiency.

High calcium can also lead to orthopedic diseases (like OCDs), and other conditions that affect the growth and development of the bones and joints. This can ultimately cause lameness and eventually lead to laminitis in adult horses.

Horses with imbalanced mineral ratios may also be at risk for urinary calculi, especially geldings and stallions, as excessive calcium can contribute to the formation of stones in the urinary tract. The best thing you can do to prevent this is to make sure your horse is drinking a lot of water to dilute excess calcium in the bladder. 

This is another reason why many people might feed an alfalfa/grass hay mix rather than just alfalfa to meet forage needs but not exceed calcium requirements.

2. Excessive Weight Gain

The energy-dense nature of alfalfa makes it an excellent feed for weight gain, but it can lead to obesity if not managed properly. 

Excessive weight gain can result in various health issues, including metabolic disorders, joint problems, and other issues. 

To check if your horse is overweight, you can perform a Body Condition Scoring (BCS), palpating key areas like the ribs, neck, and tailhead to evaluate fat. The score ranges from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (extremely fat). Ideally, you should aim for a 6. 

Regular exercise and a balanced diet are key to managing weight and ensuring the health and well-being of the horse.

3. Leads To Dehydration 

Horses don’t process protein the same way that people and other animals do.

Instead, horses metabolize the protein and then excrete the nitrogen produced during the metabolism process. 

As a result, it’s easy for them to become dehydrated.

Additionally, high protein diets can increase the concentration of solutes in the urine, drawing more water out of the body and into the urine, further contributing to dehydration. 

So if you do choose to feed alfalfa hay to your horse, be sure that they have ample access to fresh water. 

You can also give your horse electrolytes to help them stay hydrated. 

It’s also important to note that horses with kidney or liver diseases should not be given alfalfa as the increased urination will further irritate their condition. Instead, they should be fed low protein and high carb diets. For example, a study showed that sorghum and/or cracked corn mixed with molasses is an ideal replacement for these conditions.

4. Risk Of Blister Beetles

Alfalfa hay is particularly susceptible to contamination by blister beetles because these beetles are attracted to the blossoms on the alfalfa. 

Blister beetles secrete a potent substance known as cantharidin, which can be fatal. In fact, some horses may die within just six hours of consuming cantharidin. 

In cases where a smaller amount is ingested, the horse may exhibit colic-like symptoms, reflecting the distress and irritation caused by the toxin. A characteristic sign of blister beetle poisoning in horses is the behavior of repeatedly placing the muzzle in water, along with playing with the tongue in water. 

Blister beetles are typically too small to visibly see within the hay, so the best way to avoid them is feeding alfalfa from either the first or fourth/fifth cuttings, preferably harvested at < 20% bloom. This is because, the beetles like the blooms of the alfalfa, so early or late harvested alfalfa will have little to no blooms.

5. Can Lead To Enteroliths 

Enteroliths are internal stones that develop as a pearl-like structure in the large intestine. 

The layers are formed primarily of magnesium, phosphate and ammonia.

As alfalfa hay has high magnesium levels, it increases the chance of enteroliths formation. Enteroliths become dangerous if they cause a blockage in the intestine. 

A report from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis stated that 98% of the horses treated by U.C. Davis veterinarians for enteroliths were fed a diet that contained at least 50% alfalfa hay.

FAQs Regarding Alfalfa Hay For Horses

Can horses eat 100% alfalfa hay?

Yes, horses can eat 100% alfalfa hay, but it should be fed in appropriate amounts and balanced with other forages to ensure a well-rounded diet.

How much alfalfa hay is safe to feed a horse?

The amount of alfalfa hay that is safe to feed a horse depends on various factors including the horse’s size, age, workload, and overall health, but generally, it can make up to 50% of the horse’s forage intake, with the rest being grass hay, though it is important to consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to determine the appropriate diet for an individual horse.

Can too much alfalfa hurt a horse?

Yes, feeding a horse too much alfalfa can be harmful as it is high in calcium and protein, which can lead to nutritional imbalances and health issues such as obesity, kidney problems, and laminitis.

Is grass hay or alfalfa better for horses?

Grass hay may be better for some horses, such as those that are less active or overweight, as it has fewer calories. It is also lower in protein and calcium, making it more balanced than alfalfa hay. However, it may not be suitable for horses with metabolic issues due to its higher sugar and starch levels.

Can too much alfalfa cause laminitis?

Yes, feeding horses too much alfalfa can increase the risk of laminitis due to its high carbohydrate content, which can lead to an imbalance in the horse’s gut microbiome and produce toxins that contribute to inflammation and damage in the hooves.

Can old horses eat alfalfa hay?

Yes, old horses can eat alfalfa hay, but it should be provided carefully as its high protein and calcium content may not be suitable for all elderly horses, especially those with certain health issues, and it should be a part of a balanced diet assessed by a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.

Is alfalfa hay high in sugar?

Alfalfa hay is generally lower in sugar compared to many grass hays, with sugar content typically ranging from 1.5% to 4%, while grass hays like Timothy can have sugar content ranging from 5% to 15%.

Can alfalfa hay make a horse lame?

Yes, alfalfa can contribute to lameness in horses. High alfalfa diets are rich in calcium and protein, which can lead to an imbalance in the calcium to phosphorus ratio, negatively affecting bone development. This imbalance can contribute to developmental orthopedic diseases in young horses and exacerbate conditions like laminitis in adults, potentially causing lameness.

Final Thoughts

Alfalfa hay is one of the most popular types of hay among horse owners thanks to its many benefits as discussed above.

Nevertheless, it’s important to carefully consider different types of hays and consult a vet before adjusting your horse’s diet.

You can also learn more about other types of hay here on Beyond The Round before selecting a specific feeding routine. 

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