Forage Substitutes for Horses

Last Updated on March 24, 2022 by Allison Price

Horse rations have traditionally relied on long stem hay, pasture grasses and legumes as their main source of forage. Forage should make up at least half of a horse’s daily diet. This would mean that a horse needs 12 to 15 pounds of dry hay. Forages are an important source for energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, and vitamins. However, they also provide horses with a “nutrient”, which is fiber. The crude fiber in long stem hay and pasture grasses is more than 20%, while most grain mixtures, including “complete” ones, have less than 12%. Balanced rations without hay and pasture are possible for horses to adapt, although the minimum amount of fiber required has not been determined. Low fiber/high concentration rations have been shown to increase horses’ risk of gastric ulcers and colic.

In times of drought like the one we experienced in the Northeast, 1999, or other adverse weather, pastures can dry up, and long-stem hay becomes difficult to find. Local dealers and sources for hay are listed in the HayExchange website: What should a horse owner do if hay prices soar to more than $300 per ton, as some predict?

We have many options. Below are some “substitutes for fiber” that you can safely add to horse rations.

Complete concentrates:These complete concentrates can be made in various forms such as textured, pelleted or extruded. They contain a mixture of grains, hay, or beet pulp and vitamins and minerals. These concentrates can be fed to horses without the addition of hay or grain. They also meet their basic nutritional needs. There are many nutritional profiles for complete concentrates. It is important to carefully read labels so you can determine which feed will best suit your horse’s needs. It should be stated on the label that “designed to feed horses without forage.” However, the author has not been able to find any products that contain enough fiber to satisfy his horse’s chewing needs. If there is no other source for forage, this will cause a dramatic increase in wood chewing activity.

Forage Substitutes

A complete feed should contain 12 to 15 lbs to meet the daily needs of an average 1000-lb horse. If divided into two feedings, it will overload the horse’s digestive system. A smaller amount (2 to 3 lbs per feed) will optimize digestion and keep the horse busy. Horses should be fed complete feeds instead of regular grain rations. Horses should slowly switch to complete rations. This will allow them to eliminate all hay from their diets and provide the necessary amount of complete feed. Complete feeds can increase the risk for colic and/or laminitis if they are not supplemented with any other roughage.

Hay CubesLong-stem hay (alfalfa, timothy, or alfalfa) is dried and chopped before being compressed into cubes. These cubes are typically sold in 50-pound bags, which make them easier to transport and store. You may also find cubes made from whole corn plants and alfalfa. In several Rutgers research studies, hay cubes were used as the only source of fiber. We fed up to 12 to 15 pounds of cubes to each horse daily. In every study, wood chewing was more common. Two horses also had difficulty chewing the cubes if they were dry. Wood chewing can be controlled by giving the horses at least 10 minutes of water before they are fed.

If the only source of forage is to be provided for adult maintenance horses, mixed grass or corn/alfalfa cubes would be recommended. Straight alfalfa cans contain more calcium and protein than the average adult horse, but they will not cause any harm to the horse’s kidneys. Alfalfa cubes can be used to feed growing horses, lactating mares, and as a substitute for forage. If there is not enough hay, a cube can be used to extend the feeding time of hay. However, a maximum of 15 lbs can be fed daily.

Straw Although the stalks from wheat harvest or other grains have very little nutritional value they are a good source of fiber. A complete pelleted or extruded concentrate can provide the horse with all of his energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins. Straw bedding will help reduce wood chewing and satisfy the horse’s appetite for chewing. Horses who are given straw as a sudden alternative to forage can develop impaction colic. Horses should not be fed straw other than for their “chew factor” or fiber needs.

Beet Pulp – A byproduct of sugar beet production, beet pulp is gaining popularity as a horse supplement over the past ten years. It is rich in fermentable fiber and moderately high in calcium. However, it has low levels of protein (8%) and little vitamin content. It can be purchased in “raw” form that looks a bit like old shoe leather, or in pellets. The raw form was traditionally soaked in water for between 1 and 12 hours before being fed. It can cause rancidity in hot and humid climates. Pellets do not need to be soaked. It is an important additive to complete feeds.

An adult horse can be fed up to 10 pounds (dry), but they will need to be given a balanced vitamin/mineral and protein supplement. It should not be the only source of nutrition.

Wheat BranWheat bran is a good source for fiber but should not be consumed in large amounts or for long periods. It’s extremely high in phosphorus, which could lead to debilitating calcium/phosphorus imbalances. It also contains a high amount of protein (16%). It should not be used as a supplement to horses weighing less than 1 lb daily. Calcium supplements should be taken to balance the calcium/phosphorus ratio. Wheat bran should not be used as a major forage replacement.

Rice BranRecently promoted for its fat (energy) and nutritional value, rice bran also has a fair amount of fiber. However, rice bran has a higher level of phosphorus per pound that wheat bran. However, rice bran has a higher phosphorous per pound than wheat bran.

Garden refuse/ lawn clippings:Because of many ornamental (see FS938), and garden plants (tomatoes. potatoes..etc.) Horses can be seriously harmed by these. They are not recommended for use as forage replacements or supplements. Even lawn grass clippings alone are unacceptable. In warm weather, grass that has been cut with a lawnmower can quickly ferment due to its small particles and high moisture content. Using lawn clippings or garden refuse to feed your lawn can cause colic, death, and/or laminitis.


Each of these options has its drawbacks, but they can be used as forage alternatives. The cost of complete feeds and hay cubes is around $200 to $300 per tonne. They can be used as “hay extenders” if hay of moderate quality is available at a lower cost. Beet pulp and straw should not be the only source of nutrition. Both are good sources of fiber, and both are relatively inexpensive. However, they do not contain the right balance of nutrients for horses of any age. If hay is not available or exceeds $250 per ton, then beet pulp-based complete feeds and cubes can still be used. This will provide the right nutrient balance as well as fiber content to support a horse’s gastrointestinal health. Bran from wheat or rice should not be used as the main ingredient of your horse’s food. You should avoid clippings from the lawn and gardens.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!