For the past few years, the ponies haven’t been doing as well on hay and pasture as previously. I have known that my hay has decreased in quality. The picture here from 2004 always comes to mind because that hay looks so vibrant compared to what is available now. For awhile I thought the difference in my hay was because I’d gone to large (3x3x8 and 4x4x8) bales. After diesel prices skyrocketed several years ago, almost all the local hay producers switched to larger bales because they could put up hay more quickly with less fuel. When it’s put up more quickly, though, the cut hay is often left to dry longer before baling, so its feed value can be lower.
More recently I’ve suspected that the drought conditions we’ve experienced for the past seven or eight years might have something to do with reduced feed value. Despite periodic heavy moisture events such as the flooding this past week, we have indeed been in drought conditions relative to what is normal for us. A few months ago, a US Forest Service range ecologist stopped by to consult on a joint project. Her visit came when we were having a run of very hot, very dry weather, one of the characteristics of drought for us since those conditions are very unusual here. We started talking about how drought affects forage. I knew about the rush to reproduce: dedicating energy to making seed heads or flowers instead of foliage. This response to drought drives hay producers to distraction because it reduces volume.
Marie then shared with me another impact of drought that made perfect sense once I heard it but which I’d never pondered before. Because there is less water available, there is less transport of minerals in the soil and less uptake by plants. Forage, then, during drought conditions, likely has less mineral content than it does normally.
When I started noticing the ponies not doing as well several years ago, I began adding things. Digestible energy was one of the first, and that certainly helped with their condition, especially their toplines, but there were other subtle signs that things could be better. With a herd of mostly black ponies, for instance, I was seeing the rusty tinges that indicated lack of copper when the ponies were off pasture during our long winters. Another symptom of copper deficiency is wood chewing (click here to read more) which I had observed in my herd. I began supplementing copper, and it helped with the coat colors and wood chewing, but still things weren’t quite right. So imagine my delight when deeply colored glossy coats started emerging after I started the herd on a supplement designed for equines on dry lots. Eureka!
Of course, hay normally has fewer nutrients than pasture. According to Juliet M. Getty, PhD, “Healthy, well-managed pastures supply your horse with many important nutrients, including vitamins E, A (as beta carotene), and C. Grasses are also high in omega-3 fatty acids in the proper proportion to omega-6s… Hay loses some of its vitamins and omega-3s in storage.” (1) The product I’m using that is designed for equines on dry lots contains vitamins E and C and omega-3 fatty acids, so the ponies are getting what hay lacks compared to pasture. It also contains copper in the form that I found helped the blackness of the ponies’ coats, as well as many other minerals.
I suspect I’ll continue to see benefits from these supplements over time. Since I’m compensating for years of drought and some of these nutrients can be accumulated, it will take time to rebuild the ponies’ stores. In the mean time, it’s a great relief knowing I’m helping my hoofed friends get what they need. And I’m especially thankful that I’ve ended my hit-and-miss approach.
1) Getty, Juliet M. “Feeding for Immunity,” thehorse.com, 12/3/12 at: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/30983/feeding-for-immunity?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=nutrition&utm_campaign=09-09-2013
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013