Managing Your Horse During Spring Grass Growth
Cameron Jensen - Tuesday, September 06, 2016
With the arrival of Spring, the risk for digestive disease and metabolic disorders can increase as your horse consumes lush Spring pasture. In this article, we discuss three simple management strategies you can implement to avoid these health risks.
In Spring, cool-season grasses grow rapidly and can accumulate high amounts of non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) - namely sugars, starches and fructans;
predisposing your horse to acute digestive disease, such as colic, or chronic metabolic disorders, such as laminitis.
Following a Winter season on sparse pasture or hay, your horse’s digestive tract is unaccustomed to these levels, resulting in the death of good bacteria in the hindgut and the release of harmful pathogens into the bloodstream - a known cause of laminitis.
The risks of Spring grass growth are even higher for horses prone to grass-induced laminitis, or those with insulin resistance, obesity or Cushing’s disease, but without careful management, any horse can be affected. Here are three steps you can take to reduce the risk to your horse.
1. Increase turnout gradually
To reduce the risk of microbial upset, introduce your horse to Spring pasture gradually if they’ve been kept primarily on hay throughout Winter. Turn them
out for one hour during the early morning hours when fructan levels are lowest and increase by 30 minute increments daily.
If your horse has been kept on pasture during Winter, you may consider restricting grazing during the late afternoon when fructan levels peak. For those horses considered high risk, their diet should contain hay with less than 10% NSC and a balanced feed.
2. Implement pasture rotation
Over-grazing results in stressed pasture, which leads to dangerously high levels of NSCs, particularly in cool-season grasses. Rotational grazing is a
simple method to ensure your horse consumes grasses during growth stage when the stem is closer to the ground.
When pasture is grazed down to 3-4 inches, the paddock should be rested until growth reaches 6-8 inches. Managing pasture so it remains in growth stage will significantly reduce the risk to your horse of consuming dangerous levels of fructans.
3. Avoid turnout during high-risk periods
Finally, there are certain times where fructan levels are highest and should be avoided. Typically, NSCs accumulate in the late afternoon for usage overnight
in the stem. Removing your horse from pasture during the late afternoon will reduce over-consumption of NSCs.
Similarly, following cool overnight temperatures or frost, high levels of fructan remain in the stem as they haven’t been used overnight to support plant growth. Avoiding or limiting pasture intake the day after these cool conditions will also protect your horse.
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