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Pleun Broeren
12 maart 2024 Reading time 3 minutes

Alfalfa for horses, what should you pay attention to?

Feeding alfalfa to your horse can be healthy because it has unique properties. Which horses is it suitable for and which less so? And how do you deal with the high protein content and the skewed calcium-phosphorus ratio?

Alfalfa is a crop that is a suitable addition to the daily ration for many horses (but not all!). It is widely used as a fibre source to mix with concentrate. As a result, horses chew their food better. In principle this is fine, but alfalfa has a number of properties that you have to take into account.

Notable properties of alfalfa

  • Low sugar content

Average hay contains about 10-15% sugars. Lucerne, on the other hand, contains only 3% sugars on average. Even when molasses is added to alfalfa (read below why this sometimes happens), the sugar content is still very low.

  • High protein content

The high protein content in alfalfa (about 16%) is an important detail to note. It is good for sport horses that work a lot and need to build muscle. However, for most other horses it is more than they need. That is why alfalfa is often mixed with chopped hay or straw, for example in Pavo DailyPlus . As a result, the proportion of protein drops to 10.5%.

  • Positive effect on stomach ulcers

The structure in alfalfa invites good chewing. This as such is a good measure to prevent the development of stomach ulcers. It also contains a lot of calcium which helps neutralize stomach acid. As a result, it prevents severe acidification of the stomach and thus helps to maintain a healthy stomach lining. The positive effect applies to alfalfa hay, alfalfa pellets and processed alfalfa (ground very finely as in Pavo FibreBeet ), but not for coarse chopped alfalfa. It is better to avoid the latter in horses that are prone to stomach ulcers or have stomach ulcers. It is suitable for horses from 1 year (not for foals).

For which horses is alfalfa suitable?

Growing young horses, sport horses, lactating mares and older and lean horses can use extra energy and nutrients. Lucerne is then a very suitable supplement. Please note that when you add larger amounts per day (more than 2 kg) you compensate for the skewed calcium-phosphorus ratio by adding a supplement, linseed or bran. You can also choose a balanced concentrate and mix it with alfalfa or Pavo DailyPlus for more structure and extra protein.

In principle, alfalfa would be suitable for sugar-sensitive horses, for example with laminitis , insulin resistance and EMS, because of its low sugar content. But beware, you would then have to give it as a roughage replacement and the protein content is much too high for that. These horses benefit more from a low-sugar roughage and possibly supplementation with Pavo SpeediBeet  (which only contains 5% sugar and no starch) or Pavo Fibrebeet (5% sugar and 3% starch), which is also supplemented with a vitamin and mineral balancer, such as Pavo Vital or Pavo DailyFit  biscuits, and/or with Pavo DailyPlus .

How much alfalfa do you give to your horse?

Alfalfa is a valuable feed material in the ration, but how much should you feed? The amount you should give daily depends on the protein content in your roughage, what you want to achieve and what kind of horse you have. If you only give a few handfuls as a bonus through the concentrate, you only stimulate chewing. If you really want to give extra energy and protein, it is necessary to feed an adult horse of 600 kg at least 1.5 – 3 kg alfalfa. That is 1 to 2 full buckets per day. In that case, compensate for the skewed calcium-phosphorus ratio by using special supplements for horses.

Lucerne is also widely used as a raw material in horse feeds, both in muesli and kibble. It contains valuable nutrients, a lot of fibre and only a little sugar. Horses like it very much. In the complete feeds, the skewed calcium-phosphorus ratio is already compensated and at the same time the vitamins and minerals are balanced in the right amounts.

Feeding alfalfa to your horse: you should pay attention to this

If you want to start feeding alfalfa to your horse, there are a few things to keep in mind: the drying method (artificial or sun-dried; both have advantages and disadvantages), the imbalance between calcium and phosphorus and a possible sensitivity to protein with your horse.  

Artificially dried alfalfa

In the Netherlands, most alfalfa is dried artificially, so you can see dust in the end product. Most people don't like that. However, this substance comes from the alfalfa leaves which contain the most nutrients (essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals). The stems mainly consist of less digestible fibres. To prevent horses from inhaling this, most producers screen the leaf dust out, after which they press it into small chunks using molasses. They add these to the end product. This preserves the nutritional value of the complete plant. Other producers screen out the leaf dust and leave only the stems in chopped form. However, although the end product is dust-free, the valuable nutrients are gone and the dry stems can sting the horse's mouth and stomach. Some horses don't like this.

Sun-dried alfalfa

There is also sun-dried alfalfa. The advantage is that it contains less leaf dust, the disadvantage is that the nutritional value is not constant. In complete feeds this is balanced per batch. This is not the case with pure sun-dried alfalfa.

Skewed Calcium-Phosphorus Ratio 

Keep in mind that alfalfa contains twice as much calcium as desired, namely 4:1 instead of 2:1. When feeding larger amounts of alfalfa, you should compensate for this with supplements specially developed for this purpose or with grains or bran. Too much calcium in the diet hinders the proper absorption of magnesium. Magnesium is very important for the smooth functioning of the muscles.


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