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There is usually a lot of discussion involved in choosing a coarse mix or cube to feed, but an area of the diet that could perhaps benefit from more thought is the level and type of fibre present. Fibre is a particularly important component of the diet, as not only does it represent a significant source of energy for horses and ponies but also helps to support health. There is fibre present in a variety of feeds and forages, including mature grass, hay, haylage and chaffs (either alfalfa or straw based). Other feed ingredients including sugar beet, soya bean husk and some cereal bi products also contain a significant level of fibre.
Horses do not possess the necessary enzymes to break down the chemical bonds within fibre and rely on the large population of bacteria present in the hindgut to carry this out through a process of fermentation. Fermentation results in the formation of a number of substances known as volatile fatty acids that provide a significant source of 'slow release' energy for all horses and ponies irrespective of age, breed or workload.
The benefits of fibre
Fibre intake is often reduced in competition and performance horses as energy requirements increase, however, as can be seen below it is important to maintain a high fibre intake in all horses.
Adequate fibre in the diet is necessary for digestive health and normal digestion as the physical presence of the fibre in the digestive tract helps to maintain the natural movement of the guts known as peristalsis. Peristalsis is responsible for moving food through the digestive tract allowing its breakdown and absorption of nutrients.
Fibre also indirectly supports immune function, as the horses' digestive tract represents the first line of defence against invading bacteria or other pathogens that may attempt to enter the body. A large proportion of the infection fighting tissue is found in association with the digestive tract and so maintaining the integrity of the digestive cells and tissues is important. Dietary fibre has a major role to play in this respect, as the volatile fatty acids produced through fermentation are a major local fuel source for the cells lining the digestive tract.
A diet that is high in fibre can also help to protect the hindgut against the negative impact of a high starch diet that is characteristic of most performance rations. Where large meals of starch (high cereals) are fed a significant proportion of this starch can escape digestion in the small intestine. This starch then arrives in the hindgut where it can be rapidly fermented. Significant fermentation of starch in the hindgut has the potential to alter the hindgut environment and change the balance of bacteria present and so the pattern of fermentation and absorption of water. Potentially, these negative effects can contribute to loose droppings, colic and laminitis. Research has shown that maintaining a high level of fibre in the diet can limit the negative impact of high starch diets on hindgut balance and health.
Fibre intake can also have an impact on water balance as it attracts both water and electrolytes whilst present in the gut. This represents an important reservoir of water and electrolytes that can become vital during exercise, particularly in the heat where the risk of dehydration due to increased sweating is increased. Normal fermentation of fibre in the hindgut ensures that this water is released and absorbed into the blood stream thus helping to maintain hydration.
Therefore there are many reasons why fibre intake should be maintained by feeding adequate hay or haylage, as well as feeding chaffs and other high fibre ingredients as part of the concentrate feed irrespective of the work level.
There are many forms of fibre in the diet that can all contribute to ensuring adequate intake:
Hay and Haylage
Forage represents one of the major sources of fibre in the diet, and a minimum daily intake is essential to maintain health. For a typical 500kg horse, a minimum daily intake of hay or haylage that is equivalent to 1.0-1.25% of bodyweight, respectively is recommended, however, a higher daily intake is usually advantageous. More haylage than hay should be fed to ensure a similar fibre intake. This is due to the higher water or lower dry matter content of haylage (60-70% dry matter, 30-40% water) compared to hay (85% dry matter, 15% water).
Chaffs, as well as contributing to total fibre intake, help slow down the rate of eating. Addition of chaff to concentrate feed encourages chewing and promotes saliva production, which can help maintain gastric health and normal digestion.
Chaffs are often derived from alfalfa, which offers a very digestible form of fibre and additionally provides a source of quality protein, bioavailable calcium and a host of vitamins and mineral. These types of chaff are particularly suitable for horses in work, those requiring condition or where a high fibre low starch ration is desired. Straw or hay based chaffs are also widely used and represent another rich source of fibre.
For native breeds and other good do-ers good clean straw can be very a suitable source of forage as it has a relatively low digestibility and energy value per kilogram. We do need to remember though that straw is quite low in protein and other vitamins and minerals and so supplementary feed may be required. Balancers are quite useful in this respect, as only a small quantity is required daily, but they do provide a source of good quality protein and concentrated vitamins and minerals.
Sugar beet is a very popular feed usually fed soaked. It represents a very digestible source of fibre, which is often referred to as a superfibre. Sugar beet contains a high proportion of pectin, a form of fibre that is extremely easily fermented. Sugar beet also has an energy content per kilogram that rivals some cereals and so it represents an excellent choice for performance horses and could help reduce the reliance on cereals.
Sugar beet shreds can also be found in concentrate feeds typically at levels of upto 10% and at this level are both palatable and digestible. Another ingredient that can be regarded as a superfibre is soya bean husk, and previous research supports its highly digestible nature.
As fibre has such an important impact both on horse health and energy provision, it is an area of the diet that should not be neglected. However, as discussed there are many ways in which the fibre content of the diet can be increased, either through forage intake or concentrate feeds.
Falcon Equine Feeds Fibre Options
Falcon Equine Feeds have embraced the use of fibre based ingredients throughout their range of feeds
They offer a number of high fibre chaff products based on alfalfa (Triple A), alfalfa and other high fibre forages (High Fibre A and High Fibre Light) and straw alone (molassed chaff).
Many of their concentrate feeds incorporate high fibre ingredients such as alfalfa in the form of pellets or chaff. Use of superfibres within the concentrate feeds also ensures a good intake of highly digestible fibre. Many of Falcon Equine Feeds coarse mixes and cubes also benefit from the addition of live yeast. Live yeast has been thoroughly investigated scientifically and has been shown repeatedly to enhance fibre fermentation allowing your horses to derive more from their feed.
Balancer products, such as Falcon Equine Feeds Gold Cup are ideal to feed alongside forage perhaps with a chaff based bucket feed to ensure a balanced ration overall. Gold cup has a high soya content and thus provides plenty of quality protein and a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals
For more information on any of the fibre options available from Falcon Equine Feeds, please visit our website www.falconequinefeeds.co.uk