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Pasture Sugars- Part 2

by: Heather Smith Thomas


Testing Grass

Some grasses are more problematic than others, and this can vary greatly. “There are many species that have a wide variance in sugar levels (under the same weather conditions and time of day),” says Ralston.

“For instance, there are hundreds of subtypes of fescue, and some are very high in sugar and some are not,” she notes. “Kentucky bluegrass tends to be lower in sugar than the fescues, but this is a very vague generalization. Testing the grass won’t help you determine if a certain grass is high or low in sugar because it will all depend on the time of day you take the sample.

“If you want to see how high the sugar level might go—and scare yourself to death—you could take a sample at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, and you might never want to turn horses out there again!” Ralston adds. “By the same token, if your horses are grazing this pasture quite happily with no problems, there’s no need to worry. The most important thing is to know whether a particular horse is at risk or not.”

Cubitt recommends testing hay samples if you have at-risk horses. “What it has at point of harvest will be what you’ve got,” she says. “It won’t fluctuate on a daily basis like the pasture. Whatever happens to the grass before it is cut as hay will be the telling factors.”

Owners need to realize the vast majority of horses are not at risk from sugars in pastures. Ralston says that only about 10-20% of horses might be at risk. Ask your veterinarian about your horse’s risk.

Weight Watchers

“On the flip side, this isn’t all bad, because people have become more conscious about carbohydrates,” says Cubitt. “Generally, the way we feed horses has become more low-calorie, which on the whole has been a good thing for many horses. Our horse population was getting a little like the human population—overweight. Many horses are pasture ornaments and pleasure animals, rather than working in a strenuous career, and we need to feed them accordingly.”

“This may mean using low-calorie balancer feeds or some of the low-carb feeds that you also feed at a fairly low rate because they’re meant for the inactive or obese horse,” adds Cubitt. “So indirectly, even if the horse wasn’t at risk, some calorie control (such as limiting his time at pasture) may still help him.”

Unnatural Pastures

Even though a horse’s natural habitat is free-choice, full-time grazing, that natural environment was native prairie grasses and slow-growing bunchgrasses, not the lush, irrigated fields of improved “tame” pasture/hay of a modern horse farm.

“The horse evolved eating grasses that contained more fiber and much less sugar,” says Cubitt.

Irrigated pastures or pastures in humid climates contain “improved” plants that produce more pounds of forage per acre. “Pasture and hay grasses today were developed for the dairy and beef industry,” she notes. “The ability to accumulate sugars was desired because the more sugar, the more milk the dairy cow would produce or the faster a beef animal would grow. The native bunch grasses are not as thick, nor as tolerant to trampling, as many tame grasses.”

It takes many more acres of bunch grass (than it would of cultivated tame grasses) to feed a horse. Rangelands in the West, for instance, provide good grazing for cattle and horses, but it might take 10 acres per animal, or even 100 acres per animal on arid ranges of Nevada where grass is sparse.

“I grew up in Australia, where some areas are very arid and it takes many acres to feed an animal,” says Cubitt. “By contrast, my grandparents live in New Zealand, where it’s greener and you can have several animals per acre. “With domestication, horses often live in stalls or small pastures and can’t move around, whereas in the wild they walk almost continually,” she explains.

If horse owners stop to think, they realize their pastures are not a natural environment for the horse. This can make a difference in the decisions they make on how to manage their horses most appropriately.

Take-Home Message

Understanding how grass grows, and how sugars are used and available in grass and hay, can help you better manage your overweight and at-risk horses. High sugars in grass and hay can be dangerous for horses prone to certain problems, so keep an eye on the weather, grass growth, and horse weight.


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