Many owners baulk at the idea of feeding straw to their horses, but is it really as bad as it sounds, or could it actually benefit horses, particularly those who are overweight and you are doing all you can to keep them #fitnotfat? Nutritionist Donna Case BSc (Hons) explains how to feed straw safely.
Straw has a low nutritional value, being high in fibre and low in calories. It is much less digestible than hay or haylage as it contains a higher level of lignin (indigestible material). As a result of this, where straw becomes particularly useful is for good-doer types or those who are already overweight. As with changing or introducing any feed, it’s important to get it right. It is also important to note that straw isn’t suitable for every horse or pony to eat, especially if they struggle to hold condition, are young or old or have poor teeth. Seek advice from your vet first.
How to feed straw safely
1. Check your horse’s teeth
Horses with poor teeth will find straw more difficult to manage than hay or haylage, so it may not be appropriate to move them onto straw. Ask your vet for advice.
2. Choose the type of straw
I tend to recommend either barley or oat straw. Check that it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals, which it can be if being sold as bedding.
3. Calculate how much to feed
Straw shouldn’t make up your horse’s whole forage ration — it can replace up to 30%, effectively reducing the calories your horse consumes without taking away the amount of food he or she has access to.
4. Gradually introduce it
As with any new forage or feedstuff, straw should be introduced gradually, to allow your horse’s digestive tract time to adjust and maintain positive digestive health.
5. Keep hydrated
Always ensure that your horse has access to clean drinking water. There’s no real need to soak straw, as on average it has a water-soluble carbohydrate level between 6% and 7%.
6. Consider feeding a straw-based forage replacer
An alternative to buying straw bales from your hay or haylage supplier would be to use readily available straw-based forage replacers, which are produced by many feed manufacturers. The major benefit of this is you will know its nutritional analysis.
When introducing it, first check if it is suitable as a complete or partial forage replacer; this may influence your choice. If it has a very high inclusion rate of straw, then it will be listed as a partial forage replacer. Some, however, include straw at a much lower inclusion rate, so many are suitable as a complete replacer. Typically, the lowest calorie options will be the ones with the highest levels of straw, which would be fed alongside your hay or haylage to replace up to 30% of it.
Once you have established the ideal amount for your horse — which tends to be around 1kg to 3kg if acting as a partial forage replacer — gradually introduce 500g of it every other day, in a separate bucket in your horse’s stable. Follow any manufacturer guidance, such as soaking. If you are unsure, call the feed company’s helpline.
Meet the expert: Donna Case BSc (Hons) is an experienced, fully insured independent equine nutritionist who runs her consultancy ‘The Horse Feed Guru’ out of Newmarket, working both nationally and internationally. She works with a variety of horses and ponies from competition horses to retired veterans. Visit thehorsefeedguru.com
Have you heard about Your Horse’s #FitNotFat campaign, which is supported by Dodson & Horrell? Equine obesity is an enormous welfare problem and we’re on a mission to provide owners and riders with the knowledge, skills and information you need to keep your horse in tip-top health. It could be life saving! Find out more