Dr Tom Shurlock of British Horse Feeds explains a simple winter feeding approach to combat weight loss and cold weather.
Despite the fact that it almost never happens we tend to think of winter as a time of snow and extreme temperatures, and not a long wet slog from November to February and a spring that never seems to arrive. The reality is it can be either or both or any combinations in between.
What is certain is the days are shorter than the nights and the grass isn’t growing. Obvious, yes, but it highlights two important points. There is less time to eat (horses are diurnal), and preserved forage has to be given and it 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. That means the horse needs either to exert more energy to keep warm by shivering for example, or for us to provide extra heat, shelter or rugs. Even when within the zone he will need to expend more energy to maintain body temperature. The trick is for us to predict how much he needs, and when, and how to provide it – insulation, environment or feed.
So as a background to winter and sensible husbandry we will provide rugs/stabling when the weather dictates, turn our horses out on those bright frosty days and basically behave towards them as we behave towards ourselves. So we can keep them moderately warm and comfortable but need to address the limited feeding time and less nutrient dense feed. We’ve taken steps to address heat conservation for your horse, now we need to sort out the heat generation.
All this talk of heat conservation and generation in winter – when it is cold – 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 oC drop in the environment an average horse needs to generate an extra 2 MJ of energy. So we could be looking at an extra 50MJ of feed, or the equivalent of an extra 6kg of hay, when there may well be six hours less eating time!
These requirements may not be best met with starch based feeds as the rapidly absorbed sugars may be converted directly to glycogen or fat in the absence of the muscular activity of exercise. And who wants to take their horses out on a wet December evening? Obviously, if you are maintaining exercise then a feed supplying some fast release energy gives you the versatility of feeding when it’s needed. Better to have extra slow release energy sources, such as 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 the nutrition of the forage to its maximum and then we can 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 also appears to have a prebiotic effect. It has been shown that the fermentation of dietary fibre can be increased – thought be due to the stimulation of hemicellulytic microbes – that improves 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%. And it is 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 with added Alfalfa) to a base ration of preserved forage makes winter feeding simple. If it looks as if temperatures are going to tumble an extra helping of Speedi-Beet can be given, and it’s not going to disrupt the gut microbes, or 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 possibly protein/oil quality; and so it is sensible to also provide a good quality supplement. It may not be necessary on good quality grazing but over winter it could be needed. As such it is worth considering a balancer such as Baileys Lo-Cal or Baileys Performance 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 superfibre, 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, haylage
Fibre – Speedi-Beet or Fibre-Beet, levels adjusted to weather conditions
Feed – A vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer, such as Baileys Performance Balancer, or Outshine oil supplement, to further boost condition.
That way your horse will come out of winter – whenever that will be – in prime condition.
For more information on Fibre-Beet or Speedi-Beet please contact British Horse Feeds on 01765 680300 or visit www.britishhorsefeeds.com. You can also join British Horse Feeds on Facebook.