Forage Alternatives During Hay Shortages

Producing hay is not for the faint of heart. Too much rain and forages remain in the field unharvested during the peak window of maturity. If the weather does eventually cooperate, the resulting hay is stemmy and coarse. Too little rain and it simply does not grow.

Despite these challenges, forage remains the foundation of the horse’s diet. Horses require a minimum of 1% of body weight in forage and most benefit from higher levels of forage in their diet. It is quite common for a hard keeper to eat 2.5% of body weight or greater in good quality forage per day and still require additional calories through a concentrate. Restricted forage diets have been linked to increased incidence of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome and behaviors such as wood chewing or cribbing. In times of hay shortage, we have to look to alternate options to meet the horse’s fiber needs.  

In years where hay was harvested late due to rain, there is often plenty of hay available but it is more mature and lower quality. As hay matures, it becomes coarser and less digestible to the horse. If you feed the same number of pounds of a lower quality hay per day, it will provide less nutrients and (especially) calories compared to the higher quality hay. This calorie deficit from hay can be made up by increasing the amount of lower quality hay fed per day or increasing the calories provided from the concentrate portion of the diet, either through increased feeding rates or feeding higher fat feeds.

To offset lower quality hay, horses can often benefit from the inclusion of high fiber concentrates in their diet to supply highly digestible fiber. Look for feeds that are high in fiber (15%+) and include highly digestible fiber ingredients such as beet pulp, dehydrated alfalfa or soy hulls. “Senior” feeds often fit this bill, but many “senior” feeds are less energy dense because they are meant to be fed in large volumes as a complete (forage replacement) feed. Particularly for the harder-keeper, be sure that the high fiber feed you choose to complement your lower quality hay has equal to or greater percentage fat than the product you are currently using. A number of high fiber, high fat feeds are available, but many will not include “senior” in the name. 

When hay is not available we need to look to forage replacements. These come in a number of forms including complete feeds, forage extender pellets, forage cubes and chopped forage.

Complete feeds are high enough in fiber that they can replace all of the forage in the horse’s diet when necessary. This is the true use of a “senior” horse feed. These are normally reserved for horses that can no longer consume forage due to poor teeth but can be utilized more broadly in times of hay scarcity. When feeding a complete feed in place of hay, meal sizes should be limited to 5 lb per meal for the average sized horse and the total amount of complete feed spread over as many daily feedings as possible to simulate the more natural grazing type behavior. Tribute® Equine Nutrition offers a variety of complete feeds: 

Complete Feeds by Tribute®​ Equine Nutrition
Seniority Pellet
Seniority Textured
Seniority GC Plus
Kalm 'N EZ® Pellet
Kalm 'N EZ® Pellet (Non-GMO)
Kalm 'N EZ® Textured
Kalm 'N EZ® GC Plus
Senior Sport


Pelleted forage extenders are designed to replace a part or all of the forage in the diet. Forage extenders are generally a blend of several different forage ingredients. Look for forage extenders that include highly digestible forage ingredients such as dehydrated alfalfa, soy hulls, beet pulp, or timothy meal. Rice hulls, oat hulls or peanut hulls are ingredients that will increase the crude fiber value on a tag but are poorly digestible to the horse - avoid these! Unlike complete feeds, forage extenders are not fully fortified and should be paired with a fortified feed fed in accordance to the feeding directions for that product. Alfalfa or timothy pellets can be used in the same fashion as forage extender pellets.

The final category of forage replacements is long-stem forage products such as hay cubes, chopped forage and compressed forage. Unlike hay pellets or forage extender pellets, these products provide long-stem forage to the horse’s diet which more closely simulates regular hay or pasture. Cubes should be soaked prior to feeding to decrease risk of choke.  

Often a combination of the above strategies is best to implement during times of hay shortage. Combining long-stem fiber in the horse’s diet through either lower quality hay or forage cubes, even at a lower than usual feeding rate, while at the same time providing highly digestible fiber through increased feeding rates of complete feeds or use of pelleted forage extenders is a good compromise. It is important to continue to feed a fortified feed with any forage replacement strategy to meet amino acid, vitamin and mineral requirements.   

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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