What is alfalfa hay anyway? "Alfalfa is a flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop in the US, Canada, and many other countries. It is known as lucerne in the UK, France, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and known as lucerne grass in south Asia. It superficially resembles clover, with clusters of small purple flowers." Thank you, Wikipedia.
As I was 'researching' this blog post, I stumbled on an interesting website that had a Myths page that seems pretty sensible. Check it out here. The first myth the author addresses is this:
"You should never give a horse straight alfalfa." Never say never. In California and the southwest United States, horses are routinely fed straight alfalfa as the only forage. In that region, alfalfa is cheap, plentiful, and the horses do quite well.
While some horses may not need alfalfa, others would truly benefit from receiving alfalfa. The difference lies in what nutrients alfalfa provides, and what the horse actually needs. Alfalfa contains more energy, protein and calcium than most grass hays, such as timothy, brome grass, orchard grass, etc. This nutrient profile makes it most suitable for young, growing horses and lactating mares, because they have high protein and mineral requirements. By comparison, alfalfa exceeds the protein requirements of idle horses and performance horses. That does not mean these horses cannot receive straight alfalfa. It just means alfalfa provides more protein than these classes of horses need. Alfalfa also tastes good, so it's useful when you've got a finicky eater or a horse with a poor appetite.
The truth is, most of California's horses eat straight alfalfa with no problems. Mine included. Here's how we do it. RM, barn owner, doesn't have a hay barn ... yet. With our mild climate, we only have to worry about infrequent rain storms. Tarp-covered hay is a common sight in California, and serves most people well. Our hay rests on pallets and sits in two parts: the smaller stack is what we feed from while the larger stack is more tightly covered. Click photos for larger view.
RM has a scale, similar to what a grocer might have, that we use to check the weight of our flakes. I've mentioned this before, but each horse gets approximately twenty pounds of alfalfa daily. We feed twice each day. Bailey and Bounder are Hoovers and rarely leave a leaf behind. Speedy G and Sydney are much slower eaters and are often quite picky. They prefer to search out the tastier leaves and frequently leave the stems behind. Naughty boys! These pictures were taken on Monday morning at about 11:00 a.m. - several hours after feeding. Click photos for larger view.
In all honesty, we could probably cut back a bit on the hay since our boys get other stuff to eat, but we all know that readily available forage is good for the brain, gut, and keeps our ponies warm during our cold nights and mornings.