Lucerne for horses – The Pros and Cons

Lucerne is a high-quality feed and a valuable component of many, if not most horses’ diets. There are good reasons though why it shouldn’t be used as the only source of roughage for horses.

Lucerne is a high-quality feed and a valuable component of many, if not most horses’ diets. There are good reasons though why it shouldn’t be used as the only source of roughage for horses.

The BENEFITS of feeding Lucerne

Lucerne is a very nutritious feed and source of fibre. It contains about 18% high-quality protein which provides good levels of all the essential amino acids for horses, including lysine, which can be low in many feeds, including grains.

It is high in digestible fibre, including pectin, which provides sustained energy (it is converted to glucose, glycogen and fat in horses’ livers) and is very good for digestive health because it promotes beneficial gut microflora.  Lucerne is readily available, very palatable, and highly digestible.

Is Lucerne high in CALCIUM?

It is high in calcium which is in a highly bio-available form, providing around 15grams per kilo, which is essential for health (bones, joints, hooves, nervous system, metabolism) and is useful for balancing concentrates which are high in phosphorus, eg grains, copra, soy, lupins, bran (both wheat and rice bran), pollard and millrun.

Adult horses need roughly twice as much calcium as phosphorus in their diet and young growing horses need about 1.5 to 2 times as much calcium as phosphate. It is also very useful for providing calcium for horses grazing on high oxalate pasture (eg Setaria, Buffel, Kikuyu. (Oxalates bind with calcium in horses’ GI tracts and cause calcium deficiency). Most equine nutritionists also recommend that magnesium should also be supplemented in the correct ratio to the calcium in the Lucerne.

Is Lucerne high in SUGAR?

Lucerne is relatively low in sugar and starch, containing about half the amount of cereal hay (oaten, barley and wheaten) so it doesn’t cause large insulin spikes and blood sugar level fluctuations and is very useful as a component of feed for horses with laminitis or metabolic issues such as insulin resistance. (It isn’t suitable for horses with HYPP though, because it is too high in potassium. Also, some horses with Cushings do not tolerate the protein in lucerne well.)

Lucerne's effect on ULCERS

Lucerne is very good for buffering stomach acid and helps to prevent ulcers due to its high pectin content (and other types of fibre) and minerals (eg calcium and magnesium) which are alkaline and help neutralise stomach acid. (It is also a good idea to feed a small amount of Lucerne chaff or hay to horses with ulcers before riding them to help buffer the stomach acid.)

It provides good levels of chlorophyll which contains antioxidants, which help prevent oxidative damage and helps balance the body’s PH, and is therefore healthy for horses.

Unlike some other feeds, Lucerne contains no known anti-nutrients like oxalates, phytates, cyanogenic glycosides, goitrogens, enzyme inhibitors etc. It is also relatively low in phytoestrogens, unlike other legumes, eg soy and clover.

The CONCERNS when feeding Lucerne

Lucerne provides about 18% protein (and can be even higher than that), which is high for horses. Excessive protein intake should be avoided in horses in work because it increases horses’ requirements for water (necessary to excrete ammonia, the by-product of protein metabolism), urea levels increase in the blood leading to greater urea excretion into the gut, which may increase the risk of intestinal disturbances such as enterotoxaemia, and the level of ammonia in the blood increases, causing a number of problems such as nerve irritability and disturbances in carbohydrate metabolism. (See Kentucky Equine Research article “Protein requirements and a review” by Joe D Pagan).

Providing a biscuit or two of lucerne per day is a very good way to improve the amino acid profile and therefore the protein level of the diet, but feeding lucerne as the main or only source of roughage may cause problems due to excessive amounts of protein.

Lucerne and CALCIUM BALANCE

Horses need a ratio of calcium to magnesium, and also calcium to phosphorus of 2 to 1. (For growing horses, as stated above, the ratio should be 1.5 to 2 to 1 calcium to phosphate.)

Lucerne provides a ratio of calcium to phosphorus and magnesium of around 5 to 1.This means that if Lucerne is fed as the main or only source of roughage, magnesium and phosphorus will need to be provided from other feed (including pasture) and/or supplements to balance the ratios. Lucerne (like most other forages and feeds) is also high in iron and low in zinc and copper. It is also low in sodium (and in Australia, most likely low in iodine as well).

 

Low indigestible Fibre and Sensitivity

Lucerne is higher than many other roughage sources of digestible fibre which is very good providing cool sustained energy and promoting beneficial gut microflora, but it is lower in indigestible fibre, important for gut motility and removing waste from the digestive tract regularly, so second grade more stalky Lucerne is usually better for horses than prime Lucerne, or if prime lucerne is fed it should be fed with either grass or cereal hay to provide more indigestible fibre. Some horses are  known to be sensitive or allergic to Lucerne (and some other legumes eg. soy).

Written by Elizabeth Funnell
Equine Nutrition Educator

Sub-editor Bryan Meggitt (BMedSc. PGCrtMedSc.)
Senior Scientist and Co-founder of CEN Horse Nutrition

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