A cubed total mixed ration (TMR) of alfalfa, other hay and added nutrients for horses is a healthy alternative to feeding hay with commercial feed supplements, according to university research.

It could also provide hay growers with a new marketing opportunity.

“With the price of hay, the availability of good hay and the variability of getting it, feeding horses is becoming increasingly difficult. Total mixed rations are used for dogs, cats, cattle and virtually all other livestock species. So why not horses?” comments Sarah Ralston, a veterinarian and equine nutritionist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

In four years of research, Ralston compared the health of young horses fed TMR cubes or a 50% hay-50% commercial concentrate ration.

“There's been no difference between the groups in terms of health problems, and the cube-fed horses have been consistently more efficient in that they gain more weight on fewer calories,” says Ralston.

“They also have less waste. They clean up their cubes, and even if they don't, the cubes are there for the next day. With hay-fed horses, even if you put hay up in a rack or net or bag, they pull it out, strew it around the stall and lay and defecate on it.”

Horses want to separate leaves from stems because the leaves are more palatable, but that's not possible with cubes, says Harlan Ander-son, a former practicing veterinarian.

Anderson, who used to treat horses with nutritional disorders, came up with the idea of TMRs and manufactures them on his Cokato, MN, farm. The cubes, which Anderson called biscuits, are loosely cubed and smaller than traditional cubes.

“Every mouthful has both leaves and stems, and what we focus on is getting fiber into the animal and making the fiber as palatable as we can,” he says. “That's what's benefiting the hind gut of the horse.” His TMRs have little or no grain in them because most horses don't have high energy needs. A hay-grain diet can be too hot for most horses to handle, he says.

“The idea of a nutritionist balancing the diet using TMRs — rather than the horse or horse owner choosing via a cafeteria style — seems healthier to me. A person can have the right sweet feed but not the right hay,” he says.

Anderson worked with nutritionist Ralston and Nutrena to compare the TMRs with hay and Nutrena's pelleted products for horses, including SafeChoice and Life Design Youth.

In the first three years of study, two groups of yearling horses were fed each year. On average, cube-fed horses ate 3.1% of their body weight and gained 2.6 lbs/day. Animals fed hay and pellets consumed 3% of their body weight in total feed and gained only 2.1 lbs/day. Overall, horses fed the TMRs gained weight more rapidly but didn't grow taller than the other animals, Ralston says.

A study done with adult horses with a different product by other investigators mentioned that feeding the TMRs free choice could lead to obesity if the caloric content isn't restricted and that limit-feeding cubes led to increased wood chewing. This was not seen in the young horses used in Ralston's studies, she says.

“I have fed it to my own horses and am very, very pleased,” Ralston says. She'd feed more of the cubes if she could get an East Coast supplier.

“It's a tremendously viable market for hay growers, because horse people are not always that savvy in picking out their hay,” she adds. Some reject hay that's perfectly good but off in color; others won't buy hay that's not neatly stacked. “With the cubes, there wouldn't be that much of a whimsical influence.”

A couple of marketing hurdles need to be cleared, however, the nutritionist adds. One is being able to develop a business that would compete with large, established, horse-feed companies. The other is convincing horse owners, many of whom consider their animals as pets, to feed just one product.

“I'm not as comfortable with the marketing as I am with the nutrition,” Anderson admits. “But there's tremendous opportunity for forage growers to further process their hay and make it a better product available to the horse owner.”

To contact Anderson, email idleacres@cmgate.com or call 320-286-5040.