Sprouted Fodder for Horses

No, we’re not talking about feeding your horses delicate little salads of alfalfa and snow pea sprouts here, but rather growing a regular green feed for your horses and feeding it once the grains have begun to sprout into new plants.

The seed, which is basically the grain or bean that you would normally feed to the horse in the dormant seed stage, sprouts and begins to grow. It becomes more nutritious but less energy dense as complex starches are broken down to the simple sugars required for growth. It is at this stage that the sprout is fed to the horse.

To feed your horse sprouted grains every day requires a bit of time, effort, and forethought, especially if feeding a large number of horses. Equipment varies in complexity and expense, but basically involves a climate controlled environment in which the sprouts will readily grow.

Why feed it?

So why go to the trouble of sprouting grains before you feed them? What advantage does sprouting confer to the horse, making it worth the effort of sprouting rather than feeding whole grains? As the seed germinates, the stored proteins and complex starches that are bound in the seed are used as energy sources for growth, resulting in a reduction in complex starches and an increase in simple sugars, as well as a huge increase in enzymes and vitamins. Because the sprout has broken through the hard outer seed coating or husk, the contents are more accessible to the horse, much like the action of crushing and heating grains. Just about any kind of grain can be sprouted, including oats, corn, barley, lupins, tick beans, and wheat, but barley is the most common sprout.

With the beginning of growth, the starches and proteins of the grain are broken down in a process that is similar to the digestion of normal grains occurring inside the horse, and the moisture content increases dramatically (from 10% to 80%), thus increasing the volume and weight of each grain. Although sprouts contain similar mega joules (or calories) per kilo, the energy is in a more digestible form for the horse than the grain from which it came.

In particular, grains have a huge increase in vitamin C as they begin to sprout, and were sometimes used by sailors as a defence against scurvy on long sea journeys. It is suggested that the vitamin C content of oats can increase by up to 600% on sprouting. For horses, vitamin C is not an essential nutrient, as horses can make their own vitamin C quite efficiently. However, it is thought that horses in heavy training or those that are stressed by disease or infection may have increased requirements for vitamin C. Sprouts may be a good way to provide organic vitamin C in times of stress and for horses in heavy training such as gallopers, trotters, eventers, and endurance horses.

Sprouts are also thought to contain significant levels of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and digestible fibre, but detailed analyses and specifications as well as actual digestibility trials have not been carried out for grains fed to horses. In reality, although vitamin levels may rise, the mineral content of the sprout is probably similar to that of the grain and is likely dependent on the conditions in which the seed plant was grown. Sprouted grains are also likely to be variable in their actual nutrient profiles depending on the environment in which they were grown, the quality of the grain from which they came, and the age at which they are fed.

Another major plus side of feeding sprouted grains is their value as a green feed source. For horses kept primarily indoors and those on a high proportion of grain, the inclusion of succulents and fresh green fodder provides an excellent alternative to dry hay and grains, improving the mental value of the feed as well as assisting appetite and palatability.

Sprouts can be fed the same as usual grains, and most horses will absolutely love the fresh succulent addition to their diet. If large quantities are fed, it may take horses a few days to acclimatise to the form and taste of the feed. Remember that like green pasture, sprouts will be 80% moisture, so you need to feed a large weight of sprouted grains to replace grain or hay in the diet of your horse.

The use of fodder, or fresh forage sprouts, has increased in recent years. The advantages of feeding fodder in the diet are undeniable, especially for horses without access to green grass. Fodder is a high-quality forage; on a dry matter basis, it is nearly as high as grain in calories yet higher in fibre. The high water content encourages smooth passage of material through the gastrointestinal tract and could potentially reduce the risk of colic and digestive upset. The vitamin content in fodder is also much better than in hay. Evidence suggests that fodder fosters a balance of microbes in the digestive tract and may increase digestibility of other nutritional components of the diet.

In a recent research study on fodder, mature, unexercised Quarter Horses were fed 1% of their body weight in hay, 2% in fodder, and no grain. One interesting result of the study: the horses maintained their weight on this diet. Normally, a horse would consume 1.5-2% of body weight in forage daily, but because of the high water content of the fodder (about 85% water), these horses appeared to be consuming 3% of body weight. On a dry matter basis, however, they were only getting at most 1.3% of body weight. The horses were able to maintain their weight on lower dry matter intakes than normal because of the high quality of the fodder.

In summary, fodder is an excellent addition to a horse’s diet, but it is not a total replacement for concentrates or forage in the diet, particularly for a hard-working horse.

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