When adding cubes to your feeding program, consider how horses consume and process cubed forage versus long-stem forage.

HORSE OWNERS ARE FACED WITH A BARRAGE OF CHOICES ON A DAILY BASIS in every facet of horse care, especially nutrition. Forage is no exception. With the increasing popularity of cubed or pelleted alfalfa, many are wondering how to incorporate cubes into their horses’ diets. Several experts break down the differentiating factors between how cubes and baled hay are consumed by the horse.

The Role of Cubed Forage

Cubed or pelleted hay—most commonly alfalfa or a blend of alfalfa and a grass hay like timothy or bermuda—is an attractive option to horse owners because of its convenience, low waste and consistent quality. Especially for barrel racers on the road most of the year, cubes can be a dependable way to feed quality alfalfa in areas of the country where good hay is hard to find.

For others, cubes work well for performance horses to complement the grass hay or pasture that makes up the primary percentage of the horse’s forage consumption.

pouring alfalfa cubes from bucket into feed tub
Many horse owners add cubes to their feed program because of the consistent quality, convenience and low waste. Photo by Kailey Sullins

“Most people who feed a pellet or a cube will do it almost as a supplement—if they’re feeding, for example, coastal, timothy or orchard grass hay as the primary hay,” said Dr. Stephen Duren, owner and founder of nutrition consulting firm Performance Horse Nutrition. “If the hay is marginal quality and not a lot of calorie value, adding some alfalfa pellet or cube can boost the energy and protein content of the diet.”

A common misconception is that the cubing process diminishes the nutrient content of the hay.

“If you have hay cut from a field and take that hay and put it into a bale, and then you take the exact same hay and put it into a cube or into a pellet, the first important criteria to know is there’s no change in the digestibility of the hay,” Dr. Duren said. “If you’re feeding 15 pounds of baled alfalfa hay, it takes 15 pounds of cubes or 15 pounds of pellets to replace the same nutrients from a calorie, protein and digestibility standpoint. If it’s from the same field, same cutting, it has the same nutrient content—it doesn’t go up or down because it was made into a pellet.”

For professional futurity trainer and RFD-TV’s The American qualifier Brandon Cullins, good alfalfa is the foundation of his entire feed program, no matter if it’s in a cube or a bale. Cullins feeds cubes or bales interchangeably depending upon his competition traveling schedule, logistics and which option will provide the highest quality alfalfa at the time.

“With younger horses as much as we ride them and train on them, I think they take a lot of calories and a lot of high-quality calories, and I think that’s in alfalfa,” Cullins said. “I know some people talk about horses getting too hot on alfalfa, but I’ve never had that much trouble with it—maybe it’s because they’re growing so much and we’re riding so much so they’re using it, but I think that’s why it fits into my program.”

—> Read more: Brandon Cullins’ Nutrition Program <—

The Daily Grind

Horses are naturally designed to consume forage by grazing. Equine nutrition consultant Justin Ramirez of Bluebonnet Feeds says the grinding motion of chewing long-stem forage, such as grass or baled hay, takes longer than crushing a cube or pellet.

“When horses chew, they grab with their teeth and pull with their lips. When they pull that long-stem forage, they’re taking long, slow, grinding motions, as opposed to when it’s a pellet it’s like chewing gum—it’s up and down, it falls apart, and they swallow it,” Ramirez said.

horse chewing hay
Horses chew hay and grass with long, grinding motions, resulting in a slower chew time compared to the biting and chomping motion of chewing cubes. Photo by Kailey Sullins

Length of chew time becomes important if horses are stalled or dry-lotted without access to natural grazing or longstem forage options. Dr. Duren says a diet incorporating both hay and cubes or more frequent feedings of cubes is ideal in that situation.

“When people switch totally away from long-stem hay and are just feeding cubes or pellets, instead of feeding twice a day, oftentimes they need to be feeding three to four times a day to give the horse something to do, because they’ll spend a lot of time standing around since they can consume [cubes] so efficiently,” Dr. Duren said.

Salivation and the Stomach

Chew time also directly affects how much saliva the horse produces. Saliva is the horse’s natural protection against ulcers and gastric upset.

“By chewing more, they’re producing more saliva. A natural way horses do this is chewing forage—a horse only produces saliva when it chews,” Ramirez said. “Horses produce stomach acid 24/7 unlike people, so they benefit from having a buffer in the gut. In the saliva there’s sodium bicarbonate, which is a natural buffer.”

In addition to chew time and saliva production, Ramirez says the way longstem forage is digested compared to cubes or pellets makes a difference in ulcer prevention and gut health.

“Only half of the stomach is coated with a protective lining. The upper part is exposed to the elements—stomach acid,”Ramirez said. “With long-stem forage, fibers will create a mat that not only soaks up some of that acid but actually makes a protective mat that will reduce the amount of acid splash that goes up to the non-protected area. It’s like a package deal—we produce more chewing, more sodium bicarbonate because we have more saliva, so now we are helping raise the pH in the stomach, we have long-stem forage that can soak up some acid, and that forage can create a barrier between the top and bottom.”

Though Ramirez says the fibers of long-stem forage can be helpful, alfalfa in any form is still beneficial for protecting the stomach from ulcers because of its high calcium content. Both Ramirez and Dr. Duren recommend allowing your horse to munch on some alfalfa prior to exercise or competition—especially if it’s had limited access to forage before your ride, such as hauling long hours in the trailer, standing in a pen all day or being in a stall overnight.

horse eating hay out of a bag at the trailer
Offering your horse some alfalfa, whether it’s in hay or cube form, before competition or exercise can buffer acid in the stomach and help prevent ulcers. Photo by Kailey Sullins

“Research has shown that feeding alfalfa prior to exercise actually buffers the stomach acid and prevents some of the ulcers that occur during exercise,” Dr. Duren said. “If you have a barrel horse and he’s nervous, give him some alfalfa while he’s tied to the trailer or give him access to alfalfa pellets or cubes—you can soak or hydrate those if you’re worried about choking. That calcium is a very good buffer for stomach acid.”

Choosing Cubes

First and foremost, horse owners need to looking for quality products. It can be easier to make judgments on quality with baled hay because you can see and feel it before purchasing. Bagged cubes can sometimes be a guessing game, especially if you’ve never purchased from that source before.

“You can’t see what’s in a pellet or a cube, so you need to buy from a reputable manufacturer, someone who has some quality control and is taking good quality hay,” Dr. Duren said. “The alfalfa is supposed to be green, so if it’s some resemblance of brown, it may indicate that some off-colored hay or weather-damaged hay was used to make the cube.”

When perusing feed tags on cubes, many consumers notice the ingredient bentonite, which is a clay binder that holds the ground hay into a cube or pellet form.

“Many manufacturers use bentonite—it’s completely safe for horses,” Dr. Duren said.

Products without bentonite will be softer and more crumbly since they lack a binder. Harder or softer cubes are a personal preference among horse owners and their horses—Cullins prefers a harder cube for his horses—but bentonite does not affect the nutritional value of the hay in the cube or have an adverse effect on the horse.

“The amount that’s in there is a very small amount, so you don’t have to worry that you’re adding any extra iron or dirt to the feed,” Dr. Duren said. “It’s a small amount and it’s used to prevent respiratory issues from breathing in fine material from crushed up pellets or crushed up cubes.”

Whether you feed baled or cubed hay, all three experts agree that high-quality forage needs to be the cornerstone of the diet. Cullins believes there is no grain can make up for poor hay.

“I feed the best I can get. I think the majority of it is the alfalfa that’s taking care of my horses—they always look better, they fill out better, they’re shiny, and it’s easier to keep weight on them,” Cullins said. “That’s one thing I spend the most on is hay; that’s one thing I won’t skimp on.”

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of Barrel Horse NewsSubscribe to the monthly print magazine here.


Blanche Schaefer is an avid barrel racer and managing editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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