Forage should constitute the bulk of your horse’s diet, but not all of it needs to be provided as long-stemmed forages like baled hay. Forage cubes and pellets are other options that may be beneficial for horses in different management situations.

Typically, hay cubes and pellets will only make up a small portion of a horse’s total forage intake. They are often used to provide additional energy and protein in a horse’s diet or as a low-sugar and low-starch feed alternative for metabolic horses.

However, in some cases, horses may be fed hay cubes and pellets in larger quantities to substitute for long-stem forage. For example, horses with respiratory issues, dental problems, or limited availability of suitable hay may need more of their diet supplied by these alternative forage sources.

Continue reading to learn more about the nutritional composition of forage cubes and pellets, benefits for horses, feeding considerations and sample diets that incorporate these feeds.

Forage Cubes and Pellets for Horses

Forage refers to edible plant material, primarily leaves and stems and excluding grains, that horses graze as their main source of nutrients. Forage provides essential fiber to support healthy digestive function and meet equine energy requirements.

In the equine diet, the most common forage sources include long-stemmed grasses and legumes (i.e. alfalfa) in the form of fresh pasture and hay.

However, hay cubes and pellets offer a convenient alternative to traditional forage sources. These compressed forms of hay are ideal for supplementing or completely substituting fresh pasture and baled hay, especially if the quality or quantity of available forage is limited.

Commercial forage cubes and pellets also allow for more precise dietary management, ensuring that horses are fed appropriate levels of sugar, starch and protein. Additionally, these processed forms of forage tend to have lower levels of respirable dust and are easier to chew for horses with dental issues.

Types of Hay Cubes and Pellets

Hay cubes and pellets come in many shapes and sizes, but their nutritional value primarily depends on the type of forage they are made of. Common grasses and legumes that are processed into pellets and cubes include:

  • Timothy
  • Orchard
  • Teff
  • Bermuda
  • Alfalfa

To produce hay cubes and pellets, the hay is first ground into smaller particles. For pellets, the hay is ground more finely than for cubes, resulting in a smaller average particle size. [1]

Hay pellets can be milled into varying sizes, including larger pellets measuring 3/8 to 1/2 inch (1 to 1.3 cm) and smaller pellets measuring about 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) in diameter.

Hay cubes are typically 1.25 inches square (3 cm2) and range from 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7 cm) in length. [1]

Nutritional Composition

The nutritional composition of forage cubes and pellets directly depends on the type of forage from which they are made. Different forage products serve different purposes and can be chosen based on the individual needs of the horse. [1][2][3]

  • Alfalfa: In general, alfalfa cubes and pellets have higher energy and protein levels compared to grass hay and pellets. Alfalfa is recommended for horses with elevated energy and protein needs such as growing horses, mares in the late stages of pregnancy and early lactation, and performance horses.
  • Grass Hay: Grass hay cubes and pellets have lower energy and protein density compared to alfalfa. They are useful as carriers for feeds and supplements in diets for horses at maintenance or those in lighter exercise loads.

Some forage cubes and pellets are fortified with added ingredients, such as vitamins and minerals, to enhance their nutritional value for horses. Fortified cubes and pellets are typically designed to replace all or most of a horse’s concentrate and forage rations.

However, most forage products are unfortified, providing a nutritional profile similar to the grasses they comprise. [1][2] When feeding unfortified forages, it is important to provide additional vitamin and mineral supplementation to ensure the horse’s diet is balanced and nutritional requirements are met. [3]

Average Nutrient Composition of Forage Cubes and Pellets

Nutrient Unfortified Timothy
Cubes/Pellets
Unfortified Alfalfa
Cubes/Pellets
Fortified Timothy
Cubes/Pellets
Digestible Energy 2.0 Mcal/kg 2.38 Mcal/kg 2.0 Mcal/kg
Crude Protein 9% 19% 9%
Zinc 22 mg/kg 50 mg/kg 100 mg/kg
Copper 5.5 mg/kg 11 mg/kg 33 mg/kg
Manganese 30 mg/kg 65 mg/kg 100 mg/kg
Selenium 0 mg/kg 0 mg/kg 0.22 mg/kg

 

Digestibility

Cubes and pellets are made from hay that is ground and then pressed into form, resulting in a smaller particle size compared to long-stem hay. This alteration in size can affect how horses digest these forages.

Digestibility refers to how easily a horse’s digestive system can break down food and absorb its nutrients. In some studies of alfalfa cubes, pellets, and hay, no differences in digestibility were observed between forage forms. [1][4][6]

However, other researchers report reduced fiber digestibility of alfalfa cubes and pellets compared to hay. [2][5] This could be because alfalfa pellets pass through the digestive tract more rapidly than hay. [2]

Interestingly, a study comparing pelleted and chopped hay yielded the opposite result. Pelleted hay moved through the colon more slowly than chopped hay. Researchers suggested that the fiber in pellets might degrade more slowly than in chopped hay. [6]

Despite reduced fiber digestibility, horses gain similar amounts of weight on alfalfa pellets and long-stem alfalfa hay. [2] More research is needed to confirm differences in digestibility for processed forage cubes and pellets and to understand potential impacts on the horse.

Feeding Behavior

Horses evolved to graze continuously throughout the day, spending about 16 hours of their day foraging on various types of grasses and other vegetation.

Providing horses with forage cubes and pellets is a good way to mimic natural feeding behaviors when adequate grazing is not available. However, there are some key differences in behaviors between horses consuming processed forages and those eating fresh pasture grass or long-stem hay.

Horses typically eat larger quantities of forage cubes and pellets than long-stem hay and other forage types. [2] This makes these forage products a valuable source of energy, particularly for horses that need to gain weight.

One study compared ponies consuming the same diet in two forms: as a pelleted ration and as long-stem forage in a loose chaff mix. Ponies consuming the pelleted ration chewed more quickly, consumed their meals faster, and ate more frequently. [8]

Similar findings have been observed in horses fed alfalfa cubes, including shorter meal times and less chewing compared to those eating long-stem alfalfa hay. [9]

Researchers have also identified differences in the shape of chewing motions for horses consuming forage pellets as opposed to hay. These changes may necessitate more frequent dental examinations for horses on pelleted diets. [10]

Feeding Considerations

Although hay cubes and pellets can be a good solution to increase forage intake for some horses, there are some management considerations to account for when feeding them in place of long-stem forage.

  • Cost and Budget: Cubes and pellets are generally more expensive than long-stemmed hay, often making it financially prohibitive to replace large portions of forage with these alternatives.
  • Feeding Frequency: Because cubes and pellets are consumed more quickly than long stem forage, they must be fed more frequently if they make up a substantial portion of the diet.
  • Outdoor Feeding: Processed forage requires additional care and attention if horses are fed outside without shelter. Cubes and pellets can turn into a spoiled mash if they are not protected from the elements when fed. [1]
  • Stereotypic Behaviors: Stereotypies such as wood and tail chewing are a concern in horses fed cubes or pellets as their sole forage source, likely due to the faster consumption time. [1][2] If forage is not available, horses may perform stereotypies out of boredom. To avoid this, cubes and pellets should be fed in smaller, more frequent meals. [1]
  • Risk of Choke: Horses with a history of choke should be fed processed forages cautiously. The faster consumption associated with cubed and pelleted forages can increase the risk of choke, especially if horses eat rapidly without chewing their feed thoroughly.
  • Soaking Forage: Horses that eat very quickly or those with a history of choke may need their cubes and pellets soaked before feeding. Soak hay cubes and pellets with at least 1/2 gallon of water for every pound of feed, until the forages are sufficiently soft and broken apart. [11]

Keep in mind that for the average horse without a history of choke, pellets and cubes can be fed dry without soaking. Whether or not you soak your forages depends on your horse’s preferences and management situation, since horses have been shown to consume both dry pellets and cubes without issue. [2][7]

Benefits of Cubes and Pellets

Cubed and pelleted forages offer several advantages to long stem hay for horses and their handlers. Practical benefits include extended shelf life, resistance to mold, and ease of feeding with less waste. [1][12]

Hay cubes and pellets can also serve as the main source of forage for horses unable to consume long-stem forage due to respiratory or dental issues. Processed forages tend to be more palatable and contain less dust, making them better suited for horses with special needs. [12]

Respiratory Issues

For horses with respiratory concerns, hays cubes and pellets typically contain less dust and fewer allergens. By reducing exposure to airborne particles, feeding these forage alternatives minimizes the inhalation of irritants that can exacerbate conditions such as heaves or asthma. [13]

Common signs of respiratory issues in horses include:

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Abnormal lung sounds
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Flaring nostrils

Research shows that feeding alfalfa cubes can lower the amount of dust and improve air quality for horses compared to long-stem alfalfa hay. [14] Similarly, switching from dusty hay and straw bedding to hay pellets and wood shavings effectively reduced the airborne dust in the zone where horses breathe during feeding. [15]

However, other research showed no major improvements in dust levels with cubed forages, with significant decreases in the amount of time spent chewing and eating. [9] These researchers suggest that the questionable benefits of reduced dust inhalation are outweighed by changes in feeding behavior when hay cubes are provides as the sole forage source. [9]

The decision to feed horses with respiratory issues a diet of cubes or pellets likely depends on the amount of dust in the available long-stem hay and other environmental factors, such as the level of dust in their bedding.

Dental Issues

Hay cubes and pellets are an excellent option for horses with dental conditions, such as missing teeth, excessive wear, or other conditions that make chewing long-stem hay difficult.

Horses with dysmastication (chewing problems) are often unable to consume enough forage to maintain a healthy body condition. In such cases, chopped, cubed, or pelleted forage can effectively replace long-stem hay in the diet, ensuring your horse consumes sufficient energy. [16]

Signs of dental issues in horses can include:

  • Difficulty eating
  • Eating slowly
  • Reduced appetite
  • Reluctance to drink cold water
  • Quidding long-stem forage
  • Excessive drooling

Some horses with dental issues can still graze on pasture, since it is softer and easier to chew. Other horses with extensive dental problems or those missing incisors may require a diet primarily or entirely consisting of soaked cubed or pelleted forage.

In such cases, feeding 1-2% of the horse’s body weight in cubed or pelleted feed can ensure adequate forage intake. Add at least 1/2 gallon of water per pound of cubes or pellets and soak them until they are no longer hard and formed. [11]

Underweight Horses

Cubed and pelleted forages can be particularly beneficial to support healthy weight gain in underweight horses. For best results, choose energy-rich forages like alfalfa, known for its higher caloric and protein content.

Horses generally find processed forages more palatable, resulting in faster meal consumption and increased quantities consumed. [2][8][9]

Hay cubes and pellets also support weight management in senior horses. For older horses whose teeth may no longer effectively grind long fibers, the smaller, more manageable size of pellets and the slightly larger, softer cubes can make eating easier.

Lower Hydrolyzable Carbohydrates

Horses fed grain-based diets with large quantities of concentrate feeds tend to consume high levels of hydrolyzable carbohydrates (sugar and starch). These diets increase the risk of gastrointestinal, metabolic, and developmental issues in horses.

Forage cubes and pellets, which generally have lower sugar and starch content, can be a healthier alternative to concentrate feeds. Processed forages also provide a consistent nutrient profile, ensuring that each meal delivers the same amount of energy, protein and hydrolyzable carbohydrates.

For horses at maintenance, forage alone can usually satisfy calorie and protein requirements. For exercising horses with higher energy demands, forage cubes and pellets can be combined with energy-dense fat supplements to meet calorie needs while limiting intake of hydrolyzable carbohydrates.

In growing horses, fortified hay cubes have been used to effectively limit sugar and starch intake while still providing sufficient energy. This diet led to improved feed efficiency and average daily gains. [21][22]

Encourages Hydration

Some horses are reluctant to drink water at certain times of the year, such as during cold weather or when travelling to new environments. In these situations, feeding soaked forage cubes or pellets is a good way to increase water consumption in your horse. [11]

Cubes and pellets can be made into a palatable soup or mash that encourages water intake and prevents signs of dehydration.

Gastric Ulcers

Some research has explored whether hay pellets provide improved protection against gastric ulcers compared to long-stem forages.

Research has shown that replacing half of a horse’s concentrate feed intake with alfalfa pellets may help reduce the occurrence and severity of gastric ulcers. [17] Alfalfa is high in calcium and protein, which may help to buffer stomach acid and reduce ulcer risk. [17]

While all forms of alfalfa may pose benefits for ulcer risk, alfalfa pellets were found more effective than alfalfa chaff in decreasing gastric lesions. [18] This may be because the particles in chaff are coarser and more likely to induce stomach lesions. [19]

However, not all studies show benefits from feeding alfalfa pellets. [20] Factors such as the intensity of exercise training and the starch content of the diet should be considered. High starch intake and very heavy exercise predispose horses to gastric ulcers, which may be difficult to overcome with alfalfa pellets alone.

Example Diets

Wondering how to incorporate hay cubes and pellets in your horse’s diet? Below are samples diets with processed forages designed for growing horses, horses at maintenance, and horses in moderate exercise.

For personalized guidance, work with an equine nutritionist to formulate a balanced diet that meets your horse’s individual needs.

Sample Diet for a Typical 500 kg (Mature Weight) Horse

Nutrient Yearling Maintenance Moderate
Exercise
Feeding Plan
Hay Free-choice 10 kg / 22 lbs Free-choice
Alfalfa Cubes
or Pellets
1.3 kg / 3 lbs 1 kg / 2 lbs
Timothy Cubes
or Pellets
0.5 kg / 1 lb
Omneity
Pellets
225 grams
(2.25 scoops)
200 grams
(2 scoops)
200 grams
(2 scoops)
W-3 oil 60 mL 90 ml
Salt 30 grams
(2 tbsp)
30 grams
(2 tbsp)
30 grams
(2 tbsp)
Nutrient Analysis
Digestible Energy
(% of requirement)
102% 111% 100%
Crude Protein
(% of requirement)
140% 147% 154%
Lysine
(grams/day)
55 g 43 g 55 g
HC (Sugar + Starch)
(% of diet)
8.9% 8.6% 8.9%
Fat
(% of diet)
3.2% 2.7% 3.5%

Summary

  • Forage cubes and pellets offer convenient alternatives to long-stem forage with a similar nutrient composition.
  • Processed forages are particularly useful for horses with dental issues, respiratory concerns or those that need to gain weight.
  • Feeding behavior may differ in horses with diets comprised primarily of hay cubes or pellets, possibly requiring increased feeding frequency and soaking of forages.
  • Work with an equine nutritionist to ensure your horse’s diet is balanced and matches their unique needs.

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References

  1. Lewis, L.D. Chapter 4: Harvested Feeds for Horses. Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and care. 1995.
  2. Haenlin, G.W.F. et al. Comparative Response of Horses and Sheep to Different Physical Forms of Alfalfa Hay. Journal of Animal Science. 1966.
  3. Saastamoinen, M. et al. Compounded pelleted fibre feed and hay pellets as substitutes for hay in horse feeding. Agricultural and Food Science. 1992.
  4. Todd, L.K. et al. The effect of feeding different forms of alfalfa on nutrient digestibility and voluntary intake in horses. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition. 1995.
  5. Logan, P. et al. Nitrogen Retention and Nutrient Digestibility in Geldings Fed Grass Hay, Alfalfa Hay, or Alfalfa Cubes. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2010.
  6. Drogoul, C. et al. Feeding ground and pelleted hay rather than chopped hay to ponies: 1. Consequences for in vivo digestibility and rate of passage of digesta. Animal Feed Science and Technology. 2000.
  7. Latham, C.M. et al. Effects of dietary amino acid supplementation on measures of whole-body and muscle protein metabolism in aged horses. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition. 2018. View Summary
  8. Argo, C.M. et al. Adaptive changes in the appetite, growth and feeding behaviour of pony mares offered ad libitum access to a complete diet in either a pelleted or chaff-based form. Animal Science. 2016.
  9. Petz, V. et al. Changes in eating time, chewing activity and dust concentration in horses fed either alfalfa cubes or long-stem hay. Veterinary Medicine and Science. 2023. View Summary
  10. Bonin, S.J. et al. Comparison of mandibular motion in horses chewing hay and pellets. Equine Veterinary Science. 2010. View Summary
  11. Ralston, S.L. Nutrition of Horses with Pituitary Dysfunction. Proceedings of the 3rd Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference. 2005.
  12. van der Merwe, J.A. Dietary value of cubes in equine nutrition. Journal of the South African Veterinary Association. 1975. View Summary
  13. Vandeput, S. et al. Airborne dust and aeroallergen concentrations in different sources of feed and bedding for horses. Veterinary Quarterly. 1997. View Summary
  14. Raymond, S.L. et al. Comparative dust challenges faced by horses when fed alfalfa cubes or hay. Equine Practice (USA). 1994.
  15. Woods, P.S.A. et al. Airborne dust and aeroallergen concentration in a horse stable under two different management systems. Equine Veterinary Journal (USA). 1993. View Summary
  16. Ralston, S.L. Feeding Dentally Challenged Horses. Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice. 2005.
  17. Julliand, S. et.al. Effect of diet composition on glandular gastric disease in horses. Jorunal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2023. View Summary
  18. Vondran, S. et.al. Effects of two alfalfa preparations with different particle sizes on the gastric mucosa in weanlings: alfalfa chaff versus alfalfa pellets. BMC Veterinary Research. 2016. View Summary
  19. Vondran, S. et.al. Effects of alfalfa chaff on the gastric mucosa in adult horses. Pferdeheilkunde. 2017.
  20. Julliand, S. et.al. Effect of replacing part of concentrates with pelleted alfalfa on squamous gastric ulcers in exercised trotters. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2021.
  21. Ralston, S. et.al. Growth and glucose/insulin responses of draft cross weanlings fed Total Mixed ration cubes versus hay/concentrate rations. Applied equine nutrition and training. 2007.
  22. Warren, S.N. et.al. Feed Form Affects Growth and Stomach Ulcers in Yearling Horses. Journal of Agricultural Science and Technology. 2014.