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Winter Feeding

Over the past few years we have had winters ranging from endless wind and rain (2006) through intense cold, ice and snow (2009) and back to intense wind and rain (2015). We cannot predict what the conditions but can be certain of a few things days are short and the grass isn’t growing. There is less time to eat (horses are diurnal), and preserved forage tends to be lower in nutrients (drying or ensiling will result in some losses).

Beyond this there is less certainty but it will be cold for much of the season and the temperature will be below the horse’s zone of thermo-neutrality. This is the range of environmental temperature where the horse can maintain its own body heat without resorting to physiological changes such as sweating or shivering.

As owners we can offset this by providing stabling when the weather dictates and blankets when we turn out on those bright frosty days. So we can keep them moderately warm and comfortable but we need to address the limited feeding time and less nutrient dense feed. We’ve taken steps to stop them losing body heat and now we need to maintain energy intake.

All this talk of conservation and generation may seem obvious but bear in mind that, when the weather is mild, 80% of feed goes for heat generation in the resting horse and for every 1oC drop in the environment an average horse needs to generate an extra 2 MJ of energy. That’s up to 50MJ of energy, or the equivalent of an extra 6kg of hay, when there may well be six hours less eating time!

We could give a high energy hard feed, but unless you are maintaining exercise some of that fast release energy will store as glycogen or fat. Better to have extra slow release energy sources - fibre fermenting in the hindgut - to maintain a constant flow and, at the same time, generating heat to help maintain core body temperature.

By paying attention to forage quality we can utilise forage to its maximum and then supply additional nutrients through supplemental feed to meet the animal’s requirement. This is where beet products can come to the fore. Not only does beet have a high energy level, it has been shown to have a prebiotic effect. Fermentation of dietary fibre can be increased – due to the stimulation of hemicellulytic microbes - improving the energy release from other dietary components such as hay; it has also been shown that feeding beet pulp increases the digestibility of alfalfa fibre by 25%. The generation of extra slow release energy that will help overcome the two major problems of winter feeding.

The approach of feeding a beet based product like Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet (Speedi-Beet + Alfalfa and its extra 25%) to a base ration of preserved forage makes winter feeding simple. If temperatures tumble an extra helping of Speedi-Beet can be given, and it’s not going to disrupt the gut microbes, or it can be reduced if your horse’s condition is increasing. This application of forage plus fibre keeps energy intake and heat generation high, maintains gut fill and so aids good digestive function. It also provides activity during stabling and, with a little imagination in spatial presentation, can help fulfil the horse’s behavioural response to foraging.

The third string to winter feeding is to supply sufficient micronutrients. Preservation of forages can affect levels of vitamins, some trace elements and phytochemicals and protein/oil quality; it is sensible to provide a supplement. It may not be necessary on good quality grazing but over winter it could be needed. As such it is worth considering a feed balancer.

British Horse Feeds have long held to the philosophy of forage, fibre, feed. That is, supplement the forage as much as possible with additional fibre (best a super-fibre, such as Speedi-Beet/Fibre-Beet) and complete with a hard feed designed for a particular purpose. This concept covers the entire spectrum of breed, size and activity and winter can be regarded as an activity in nutritional terms.

So winter can be planned into your feeding regime, keeping it simple:

Forage – hay, a little bit of grazing or haylage.

Fibre - Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet, levels adjusted to weather conditions.

Feed - A supplement or balancer, such as Baileys Performance Balancer, or Outshine oil supplement, to “round off the edges”.

That way your horse will come out of winter – whenever that will be – in prime condition.