Picking Hay for Sugar/Starch Sensitive Horses
All horses need fiber in their diet and some of it must be the form of long hay. Horses challenged by metabolic syndrome should be offered hays that are low in non-structural carbohydrates or NSC. This class of carbohydrates includes starch, water-soluble sugar, and fructan.
Normal horses can tolerate NSC levels of 20% or higher. It is recommended that horses with metabolic syndrome consume hay with NSC levels of around 10% to 12%.
In order to know the true NSC value of your hay you will have to test it, but understanding the factors that affect NSC levels will help you pick hay that is more likely to meet your horse’s needs. Several factors affect the NSC levels found in a cutting of hay. Multiple cuttings from the same field of grass can yield hay with different levels of NSC. The type of plant, maturity when harvested, time of cutting, time spent curing in the field, and environmental conditions during harvest all contribute to the amount of NSC found in the plant. When choosing hay for a starch/sugar sensitive horse, you have to consider all these factors.
Type of plant:
Typical NSC levels in different types of hay*
- Grass hays: an average of 13% (range 7%-18%)
- Legume hays (alfalfa): an average of 11% (range 8%-13%)
- Oat hay: an average of 22% (range 14% to 29%)
*Values from Equi-analytical Laboratories. (updated 2019)
Maturity of plant
- Young plants tend to be higher in sugar
- Mid-bloom, mature grass tends to be lower in sugar
- Very mature plants tend to contain large amounts of indigestible fiber and can be unpalatable
Timing of harvest and curing conditions
- Grasses harvested in the morning, following evenings when temperatures are 40°F or above will be lower in NSC
- The longer hay is dried in the field, the lower the NSC
- Western hays tend to be harvested later in the day and baled more quickly than Eastern hays, so they can be higher in NSC
- Hay that has been lightly rained on will be lower in NSC; however, it must be completely dry when baled or it will become moldy
Environmental conditions at harvest time
- Grasses stressed from drought conditions or freezing temps will contain higher percentages of NSC
- Stressed warm season grasses, such as crabgrass or coastal Bermuda grass, tend to be lower in NSC
- Stressed cool season grasses, such as fescue, orchard grass, and Timothy, tend to be higher in NSC
The best way to determine the NSC value in a bale of hay is to get it tested. When you test your hay you get not only the NSC value but other nutrient levels as well. There are several laboratories that specialize in hay analysis. Equi-analytical Laboratories has a 6-step procedure in diagram form on their website. You can also check with your local extension office to see if they offer testing services.
Plan on collecting a sample for each load of hay you purchase. To collect your sample you will need a hay probe, a drill, and a ziplock sealable plastic bag to put the sample in. You can either purchase a hay probe or you can check with your local extension office to see if they can loan you one.
To sample your hay, pick 12 to 20 random bales from throughout the load. Probe each bale in the center of the strings on the small end of the bale so you are probing the length of the bale. Put each sample in the bag and mix well. Fill out the paperwork required by the testing facility and drop it in the mail. Once you receive your results, if you have any problems understanding them don’t hesitate to contact the lab or your local extension office for help.
At some point, most of us will have to manage a starch/sugar sensitive horse. Understanding the need to tailor a diet to meet his or her needs will make your life easier and your horse happier.
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Excellent information here – thanks! I just had my new hay provider’s hay tested at Equi-Analytical, and it came back at 12% starch (basically), the high end of safe for my IR TWH. I’ve always been curious about how the farmer/grower could lower that. Other than cutting in the morning and when the seed heads are medium-sized, what are some things he could do to lower the sugar/starch content? Are there any amendments or modifications he could make to the soil?
I live in dairy country (upstate NY) and the hay growers cater to cows. It’s been a long journey to find clean, green, safe hay for horses over my 12 years of living here. I’m currently on my 27th hay provider, and I finally found hay that I’m willing to feed my little herd of four horses, one mini, and two miniature donkeys. He actually cares about the horses and their owners who buy from him, and he’s interested in doing what he can to help.
Any recommendations or suggestions would be really appreciated!
Sorry, I should have saif “in addition” to cutting in the morning, not “other than.”
Thanks for your question. As you know, the sugar levels in hay are dependent on the species of grass grown and the growing conditions.
The species of grass grown in a field is dependent on what zone the hay is grown in. Warm-season grasses are normally lower in sugar than cold-season grasses.
Certain growing conditions will result in lower sugar levels. Hay baled after a period of cloudy weather will be lower in sugar. Research shows that hay baled after a two-week period of cloudy weather is significantly lower in sugar. Grasses that grow in shady areas are lower in sugar. Hay cut early in the morning is lower in sugar.
Hay grown in deficient soil grows slower and accumulates more sugar. It is very helpful if your supplier adequately fertilizes their hay fields.
Regardless of species or growing conditions, it is a good idea to test the hay you purchase for sugar-sensitive horses.
hi, love the article! if you were to make a hay crop for horses at risk of laminitis what would be the grass types you would use and why? I wanted to ask as i am thinking of producing a hay specially suited to my laminitic pony. thanks
Thanks for your questions. There are multiple factors that impact the NSC levels in hay. They range from species of grass to growing conditions and harvest timing. These will vary widely in different parts of the country and over different growing seasons.
Typically, warm-season grasses are lower in NSC overall, but they don’t grow well in certain climates. I suggest you contact your local Cooperative Extension Ag agent or the agricultural college in your area and work with them to choose the correct type of grass for your climate and soil conditions. They can also help you monitor seasonal environmental changes and advise on correct harvesting and testing protocols.
Hi. Would this low carb hay be an option for donkeys as they are trickle feeders? I realize barley straw is the best, but it is unavailable in my area. Thanks!
High-fiber, low-protein and low-sugar hays are best for donkeys.
If barley straw is unavailable, nutritionists recommend grass hays with an ADF (acid detergent fiber, which measures the indigestible fiber in the hay) of above 40% and a crude protein of less than 10%. An example would be very mature timothy hay.
To learn more about testing your hay, visit Eqiu-Analytical at https://equi-analytical.com/
Hello, my name is Ana! My horse is currently working on Teft and a little alfalfa. She is insulin resistant! She is a cribber and tends to do so while eating and some foods like grains or alfalfa send her to do so! She is prone to have ulcers and have heard the calcium in the alfalfa help her ulcers! She has been treated now for her ulcers and when I go to feed her she is pacing! While I am soaking her food she will eats dried barb like mustard plants so I feel as if her stomach is not happy! Is it the hay? And what hay should I use?
Thank you for contacting KPP.
It is not unusual for cribbers to crib during feeding time. Cribbing can be a response to tummy troubles, but cribbing is also a stereotypic behavior, or a habit. Your horse may have started cribbing at feed time in response to ulcers and now it has become a habit for her to do so. While reducing ulcers could make her crib less, she may always crib to some degree.
Teff is a good choice for an insulin-resistant horse. Teff hay rarely needs to be soaked because typically it is already low enough in sugar. You can have it tested to find out the exact level.
Alfalfa in small amounts can be okay for insulin-resistant horses as long as they don’t get too fat eating it. Alfalfa has more calories than teff hay and is higher in sugar. Alfalfa does provide more calcium than grass hays and acts as a short-term acid buffer. I doubt the teff and alfalfa are causing your horse to have ulcers; in fact, they should be helping to prevent ulcers.
Feeding as many small hay meals as you can throughout the day will help reduce the incidence of ulcers. If that isn’t possible, use a slow feeder or slow-feed hay net to increase the time it takes your horse to eat. The more she chews, the more saliva she makes. Saliva is a natural stomach buffer.
High starch/sugar grains (sweet feeds, for example), on the other hand, can cause ulcers in horses so you want to avoid feeding large amounts. Such feeds are also not appropriate for insulin-resistant horses. If your horse needs more energy than her allotment of hay can provide, then pick a low-starch, high-fat feed and feed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
If your mare can maintain her weight on teff and alfalfa hay alone, then all she needs is a well-balanced vitamin and mineral pellet such as Micro-Phase™ (https://kppusa.com/product/micro-phase/). Micro-Phase will provide the vitamins and minerals that are missing from an all-hay diet without adding any sugar or calories.
I would also recommend Neigh-Lox® Advanced (https://kppusa.com/product/neigh-lox-advanced/) to reduce the incidence of stomach and colonic ulcers in the future. The ingredients in Neigh-Lox Advanced are long acting. They coat the stomach and buffer excess acid for up to 8 hours. Neigh-Lox Advanced also helps maintain a healthy hindgut, which makes the horse feel better in general.
It is best to remove as many weeds as you can from your pasture or dry lot by routine mowing, or physically pulling them up. Check with your local cooperative extension, because they can help you with weed identification and recommend control measures. Some weeds can be poisonous. Mustard plants in particular can be toxic. Horses don’t usually eat toxic weeds, but if they are bored or hungry, they might get into them.
I hope this answers your question.
I have a horse that has Cushings and IR. I am looking at a grass hay that is mostly Orchard, brome, fescue and some Tim (little). The farmer is having the hay tested. I know that the sugar should be 10-12 % range. However what other values should I be looking at. I am wondering if this grass hay is adequate.
What a great question! The quality of hay is judged by its fiber and protein content. As the grass matures, the fiber levels increase and the protein decreases. NDF (neutral detergent fiber) and ADF (acid detergent fiber) are the tests used to determine the level of fiber in a forage. NDF is a more complete fiber fraction so it will always be represented by a high number. Look for an NDF between 40% and 65% and an ADF between 30% and 45% . An ideal hay for easy keepers will be in the higher end of these ranges. If the hay has an NDF above 65% and an ADF above 45% it will provide little nutrient value to your horse.
Protein in hay varies depending on the type and maturity level of the hay when it is cut. Legume hays (alfalfa and clover) contain 12% to 20% protein. Grass hays contain 6% to 10% protein. A mature horse requires at least 10% protein.
Once grass is cut and dried for hay, vitamins quickly lose their potency. This is particularly true for natural vitamin E. Depending on the area you live in, your hay may also lack some of the minerals your horse needs to remain healthy. For example, the northern and southeastern states are typically deficient in selenium.
To fill in the gaps in your horse’s diet we recommend you supplement with a well-balanced vitamin and mineral supplement like Micro-Phase https://kppusa.com/product/micro-phase. Micro-Phase provides the vitamins and minerals typically lacking in a diet consisting of all forages and little to no fortified grains.
I have a 23yr old previously grass foundered gelding who has heart-bar glue on shoes , eats1pd. Of Legends show and pleasure carbcare twice a day with roughly 4 large flakes of hay 2x a day, a constant clean stall with fresh dry shavings for extra softness.
Just 2 wks ago with his trimming and shoes afterwards I have noticed him constantly limping on front feet, my Awesome farrier has been working very hard in keeping him sound and he gets no pasture no grass what so ever. So I recently started Sly 4 days ago on this product Remission at 1 ounce loading dose for 7-10 days to help hopefully with his issue. I know winter months are the hardest on older horses and insulin resistant horses. No founder has been detected as with xrays, could this be a bad case of arthritis? And am I over speculating he maybe trying to founder again? Am I giving my horse to much of supplements with feed or not enough , I need someone to help lead me in the right direction in what to do, after hand walking my horse daily for 10-15 minutes 2-3 times a day he seems fine then it’s like later each time I go to take him out he shows a sign of limping then he’s ok once on really soft ground when walking, we don’t have a dry lot to turn him out everything is with grass so I’m afraid to turn him out since 2 wks ago. Gets no treats 4 large flakes of hay 2x day, 1pd feed 2x day 1 once remission 1x day.
Please help someone and Thank you for your time
Thank you for contacting us. I am sorry to hear you are having difficulties with your gelding, I know it is frustrating.
I am glad that you have both your veterinarian and farrier involved in your horse’s care. Their input is very important. The first thing to rule out in this case is acute laminitis. If you suspect your horse is foundering again then call your veterinarian immediately. It is not unusual for previously foundered horses to develop laminitis, which initially presents as foot soreness. Cold weather and hard ground can also impact the sensitive laminae and make a previously foundered horse sore. If your horse has insulin resistance (IR), lack of exercise increases insulin dysregulation, thereby increasing the risk of laminitis. Your veterinarian has the tools to properly diagnosis metabolic diseases such as PPID and insulin resistance that can cause founder. You may find this article on metabolic syndrome in horses helpful. http://kppusa.com/2018/09/05/targeted-solutions-for-equine-metabolic-syndrome-ems-and-cushings-disease-ppid
If laminitis is the underlying issue, your vet and farrier can recommend supportive shoeing, ant-inflammatory therapy and other medications to help control inflammation and pain. Horses can have laminitis and not present with bone rotation right away. In insulin-resistant horses rotation can take place slowly over time as the laminae degrade so it is important to treat the underlying condition and monitor your horse closely.
Continue to restrict pasture with this horse and as long as he is sore discuss appropriate levels of exercise with your veterinarian. If a horse is having an attack of laminitis, exercise can cause severe damage to the laminae. Ask your veterinarian to rule out advanced arthritis with radio graphs and flexion tests.
In the meantime, I recommend you review the sugar levels in your horse’s diet, as he may be getting too much sugar. Insulin resistant (IR) horses and previously foundered horses should consume feed and hay that have an NSC value of 10% or less. NSC represents the total amount of starch and sugar contained in a feedstuff. Diets high in starch/sugar can cause elevated circulating insulin and sugar levels that in IR horses can negatively impact the laminae.
Let’s review your horse’s diet and see what changes you may be able to make.
Concentrate portion: Legends CarbCare Show & Pleasure
I looked up Legends CarbCare Show & Pleasure and it has an NSC value of 20%. 20% NSC is considered the high end of “low carb,” but for an IR or sugar-sensitive horse it is too high. I recommend switching to a feed that is 10% NSC and if your horse can’t eat the recommended amount, then add a vitamin and mineral supplement that provides the nutrients your horse needs without the added sugar.
What do I mean by recommended amount? Each manufacturer will designate a minimum amount to be fed. If you feed under that amount, your horse will not be getting the required vitamins and minerals they need. If we look at the amount of CarbCare you are feeding, 2 pounds per day, and compare that amount to the manufacturer’s recommended minimum, which is 4 pounds (for a 1,100 lb horse), 2 pounds of CarbCare is not providing the required vitamins and minerals your horse needs. So not only is the feed too high in sugar, but it isn’t meeting his vitamin and mineral requirements.
Many sugar-sensitive horses can’t eat the recommended amount of a fortified grain (or pellet) because it provides too many calories. In that case an additional vitamin and mineral supplement is necessary to meet the horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements. If your horse is an easy keeper, then a vitamin and mineral pellet alone can meet his nutrient requirements without adding unnecessary extra calories or sugar.
Kentucky Performance Products developed Micro-Phase for easy keepers and sugar-sensitive horses. In your situation, I would supplement your horse at a rate of 2 ounces per day if you are feeding less than the recommended amount of a 10% NSC fortified grain. Or you can stop feeding grain entirely and just feed 3 ounces of Micro-Phase, as long as your horse maintains his weight without the additional calories from the grain.
You can learn more here: http://kppusa.com/product/micro-phase One bucket of Micro-Phase will last you 160 days if you feed 3 ounces per day. It will last 240 days if you feed 2 ounces per day.
Fiber portion: grass hay
As with the concentrate portion of the diet, the hay portion should have an NSC value of 10% (12% at the highest). The only way to know the NSC level of your hay is to have it tested. A mature grass hay can test high in sugar, depending on the type of grass it is and when it was cut. Time of year, time of day and weather all impact the sugar levels in hay. This article will be helpful: http://kppusa.com/2018/02/09/picking-hay-sugarstarch-sensitive-horses
If the sugar levels in your hay are high, you can still feed it but you must soak it first. To soak hay properly you must completely submerge it under water; you can use a clean wheelbarrow or muck bucket. Soak it for 30 minutes in warm water or 60 minutes in cold water. Do not soak for longer periods of time as it causes essential minerals to leach out. Drain completely before feeding. Don’t let your horse drink the soaking water as it is high in sugar. If you can find some, it is often easier to feed hay that contains an appropriate sugar level. If you horse is insulin-resistant, avoid alfalfa hay. Even though it is low in sugar, its high protein levels can adversely impact the IR horse.
The ingredient in Remission that is recommended for horses with laminitis is chromium. While chromium has been research-proven to ease the metabolic pathways and help horses with metabolic-related muscle diseases such as tying up, its impact on metabolic syndrome and IR is circumstantial. The effectiveness of the Remission in this case is questionable. If your horse is insulin-resistant or prone to sugar-sensitivity, then we recommend InsulinWise. Your veterinarian can get it for you. It is research proven to increase insulin sensitivity in IR horses and reduce the risk of laminitis. You can learn more about the research behind this product here: http://www.kppvet.com/insulinwise
I hope this information is helpful. If you have further questions, please let me know.
Karen @ KPP
Howdy! In winter in Texas, our usual coastal bermudagrass hay tends to run out pretty much everywhere. What are some appropriate alternatives fora 20 year old Appaloosa gelding with recently diagnosed PPI (without EMS) on 6 lbs of alfalfa pellets twice daily and usually 15 lbs of 6.2% NSC coastal bermudagrass hay per day?
Just to clarify, your horse has PPID (Cushing’s disease) but he is not sugar sensitive (insulin resistant), is that correct? If so, then there are many alternative fiber options on the market. Most of the them have an NSC value of 12% or less, which is appropriate. If he becomes insulin resistant, then you need to look for NSC values that are 10% or less.
Grass hay cubes, compressed grass hay or grass hay chop are all appropriate alternatives. Whatever you choose, make sure it is dust-free and mold-free and that there is a consistent supply available.
Start to add your alternative fiber source into the diet slowly, before you run out of hay. This will allow your horse’s digestive tract to adjust to the new feed. Plan on a switchover period of 10 to 14 days. Depending on the quality of the fiber source you choose, you will mostly likely replace the hay pound for pound. Offering smaller meals more often is ideal. Monitor your horse’s weight and adjust the amount fed accordingly.
Since your horse is older, if you choose to feed hay cubes, soak them before feeding. I like to add enough water so that the cubes are just floating. Let them sit for 30 minutes, or until all of the water is absorbed, because it makes them easier to chew.
Nutritionists recommend including some long hay in the diet to reduce boredom and increase chew time, so consider feeding at least some fiber alternative year-round to stretch your hay supply so you don’t run out.
Most feed companies keep a grass hay cube in stock. Some carry hay chops. Make sure the hay chop you get meets your NSC requirement of 12% or less. It is okay for hay chop to have some molasses in it as long as the overall sugar levels remain low. Insulin-resistant horses should consume feeds that are 10% or less NSC.
I would also highly recommend adding a vitamin and mineral pellet such as Micro-Phase (http://kppusa.com/product/micro-phase) to your horse’s diet to ensure he is getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs to stay healthy.
Additional vitamin E, up to 3,000 IU per day, is beneficial for horses struggling with PPID. It supports a strong immune system and helps maintain healthy muscle and nerve functions. For best results, choose Elevate® Maintenance Powder. (http://kppusa.com/product/elevate-maintenance-powder)
You can also add some unsweet beet pulp to the diet, but you don’t want to feed more than 3 lbs a day. Here is a good article with information about how and why to feed beet pulp. (http://kppusa.com/2014/12/19/beet-pulp-super-hero-fibers)
Standlee Hay (https://standleeforage.com) offers a variety of grass hay cubes and compressed baled hay that would be appropriate. They have a chart on their website that gives the NSC value for each type of fiber product they sell. https://standleeforage.com/nutrition/nutritional-papers/low-carb-forage-options
Triple Crown Safe Starch Forage is another option. This a fortified hay chop. https://www.triplecrownfeed.com/products/safe-starch-forage Or they have an unfortified option as well, Triple Crown Premium Grass Forage https://www.triplecrownfeed.com/products/grass-forage
If you have additional questions, please let us know.
Karen at KPP
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My vet recommended that I switch from orchard grass to timothy because my gelding was becoming to heavy. We drew blood and he had slightly elevated sugar levels, normal thyroid, and normal everywhere else. My difficulty is I am very allergic to timothy hay. I am also extremely sensitive to bermuda. Pellets have been suggested but I am concerned about fiber. Two nights ago he had a mild colic episode. We suspect the cause being the weather. In addition to 5 lbs hay he gets 1 lb. Purina Enrich per feeding and a scoop of StressDex electrolyte.
Can you make any recommendations to keep my horse trim and still allow me to breathe normally?
A horse should be consuming 1.5% to 2% of their body weight in fiber (hay, pasture, cubes or pellets) per day. That is 15 to 20 lbs for a 1,000 lb horse. Make sure you are feeding adequate levels of hay to support a healthy digestive tract. If your vet feels the orchard grass hay you are feeding is providing too much sugar or too many calories, it is smart to change hay; however, when choosing a hay I would recommend you depend on the nutrient profile of a hay instead of simply the type of hay.
Orchard grass and timothy have similar nutrient profiles, so you might be able to find an orchard grass hay with lower sugar levels that provides fewer calories than what you are currently feeding. Have your hay tested and pay close attention to the levels of NSC (nonstructural carbohydrates, or sugars), CF (crude fiber) and DE (digestible energy, or calories). Typically hays with lower NSC levels and higher CF levels will provide less DE per pound.
A more mature orchard grass could provide your horse with what he needs and allow you to keep breathing! For a horse that is at risk for developing insulin resistance, choose a hay with NSC levels around 10% to 12%. For hays with higher NSC levels you can soak the hay for 15 to 60 minutes to reduce the sugar levels. Here is a link to a great hay testing lab, Equi-Analytical. The website even walks you through how to properly take a sample. http://equi-analytical.com
As far as feeding hay cubes or fiber pellets, there is some controversy regarding optimum fiber length requirements in the horse’s gut. As long as you feeding an adequate amount of fiber, and some long hay (recommendations range for 25% to 50%) along with cubes or pellets, your horse will probably do fine. Cubes can be fed dry or soaked, depending on your preference; however, soaking them is a great way to increase water intake. Feed several small meals per day to give your horse plenty of chew time, as this will reduce both boredom and the risk of ulcers.
To reduce the risk of colic make sure your horse is drinking adequate water. A good electrolyte will stimulate the thirst response and increase water intake. StressDex is 73% sugar and only 1.9% salt. I suggest you choose a supplement that provides more electrolytes and less sugar. Compare StressDex to Summer Games Electrolyte as an example. https://kppusa.com/product/summer-games-electrolyte/
Make all feed changes (both hay and grain) very slowly, over 10 to 14 days. Research has shown that it takes two weeks for the equine gut to acclimate to new feedstuffs. When quick changes occur the risk of colic increases dramatically.
Thanks for info. Transitioning to feeding older horse with poor teeth and laminitis issues has been a challenge. Appreciate the info.
Is a horse at less risk for laminitis on grass as opposed to other grasses? We recently moved to FL from NJ.
My horse is a candidate for laminitis. In NJ we had very little grass in our turn out. Here in FL the pasture is Bohemian grass. I muzzle him most days- depending on the weather. Am I doing what is best for my horse?
Unfortunately, I can’t find any specific information on Bohemian grass. Many of the pastures in Florida are made up of mostly warm-season grasses that perform well in hot, humid conditions; however, some cool-season grasses can also be present to provide winter grazing.
In general, warm-season grasses contain less sugar then the cool-season grasses found in the northern states, but keep in mind all grasses contain some sugar. The level of sugar is dependent on species of grass, time of year, and growing conditions. To find out more about the specific grasses in your pasture, contact your local Ag Extension agent or the Animal Science program at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
If you have a horse that is susceptible to laminitis, it is always best to restrict the amount of fresh grass they consume, so you are on the right track. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your local veterinarian and ask questions. Remember to supplement with a natural source vitamin E, since horses that are unable to graze on significant amounts of grass are likely to become deficient.
I hope this helps.
Kentucky Performance Products, LLC
This is a very important topic. I recently had to put down my 29 year old Appaloosa Gelding. He was my childhood horse – 25 years! I knew Shammie inside & out. When he started showing signs I started reading to have more awareness on the subject. I am thankful for these types of articles! THANK YOU!!
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