Silage, it’s one of the main fodder crops in the country, with Summer months spent hurrying to get it cut and in on time. But can we feed it to our horses over winter?
During winter months Horses need over 1% of their body weight in dry matter. This equates to on average 5kgs of dry matter per day. This is the minimum necessary amount required to ensure a horse retains a healthy digestive system and helps prevent other health issues such as colic, ulcers and dental and oral problems. But should silage be used as a food source during the winter?
Silage - The pros and cons:
Traditionally hay is used to feed horses and not silage, this is due to horses being fussy eaters. Hay though is very hard to get made correctly, especially in Ireland’s ever changing weather conditions.
Horses tend to prefer forage which has a higher sugar content, the sugar (molasses) in silage is of course turned to acid during fermentation. Therefore even if you have silage to feed your horse, it may not even eat it.
There are also issues with silage being transported, due to it being heavier in weight than hay. As well as that farmers tend to have issues with silage going bad very quickly, ideally one bale should only be fed for one day and removed thereafter. This is due to the quick nature in which silage turns bad upon exposure to oxygen. Silage tends to have a very short shelf-life.
There are advantages to using silage as fodder though. Due to it having less dust than hay it might be more suitable for performance horses or horses who need their lungs working at a 100% capacity. Though for this reason there are other, more suitable dry matter feed to use.
Issues of using Silage:
There can be issues from feeding your horse silage through the winter, with Botulism being the main one.
Botulism is caused by the introduction of bacteria to the grass as it’s being cut and then incorporated into the silage. It can also be introduced by contact with an animal carcass or poultry manure. The toxin, causing Botulism, can spread through the whole of a silage bale, as conditions are perfect for it to thrive.
Botulism is a serious paralytic illness caused by toxins released by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and it is sometimes referred to as forage poisoning. It generally takes between 4-5 days after ingestion for the symptoms of Botulism to be noticed. It usually affects young foals or adult horses kept in for winter.
The symptoms of Botulism include:
Food and saliva in the nose
Head low to the ground
Generalized progressive weakness
Note: If you find your horse to be suffering any of these signs, you should contact your vet immediately.
Other issues with using silage is its low fibre content. This is particularly important for performance horses who need fibre in their diets. As grass for silage is cut shorter than other fodder crops, it makes it less efficient for the digestive system of the horse. This means it requires less chewing and results in less buffering of stomach acids in the animals. This can lead to gastric ulcers, which can be common in racehorses.
Older horses may also struggle to digest silage, due to the higher protein content. Silage is also not very suitable for colder conditions, due to its tendency to freeze, while it may also lead to colic when high amounts are fed to horses.
Haylage is one option which seems to be popular among horses. Haylage is the inbetween of hay and silage. It is wilted and dried like hay, though not as much. It also retains some of the sugars, which means it retains its sweetness, much to your horses delight. There is also very little dust in Haylage, due to it not being dried as long. This makes it more than suitable for your horse and it will love the taste.
Moral of the story is that there are risks connected with using silage as fodder for your horse, especially during the winter, As the saying goes, "If in doubt leave it out".