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Playing the Field Part 3: Lucerne

Superfoods are all the in thing now so why not look at superfoods for our horses? Lucerne is the superfood of roughages. It is high protein and carbohydrate concentration and contains more energy than grass or cereal hays and chaffs. It is also high in the amino acid, lysine and in calcium and low in phosphorus. Contains large amounts of potassium and low amounts of sodium. Fresh lucerne also contains vitamins A and E. What is there not to like about lucerne, it sounds like it is the perfect food for our horses? In many ways lucerne is perfectly formulated for horses, but like all superfood moderation is key and as the saying goes you can “have too much of a good thing”.


Lucerne is safe to feed to all horses. However, due to its high protein and energy content it should be fed in moderation to prevent issues associated with excess energy and protein in the diet. It is valuable for growing horses as it provides them with a digestible source of energy as well as a source of high-quality protein. The calcium rich characteristic of lucerne is also beneficial to growing horses. As well as being good for growing horses it is great for pregnant and lactating mares too. It helps to support them and elevate their calcium intake. Lucerne is good for high performance horses as well as it provides them with the energy they need, but it must be fed in moderation. Unlike, pregnant and lactating mares and growing horses, excess protein in the diet of a working horse, particularly those that are stables can be detrimental to their health and performance. Excess protein will increase urinary ammonia production which may result in respiratory problems for stabled horses. Excess protein can also contribute to dehydration due to water loss through increased urine production and excretion. It is important to note that these potential effects are not because of feeding lucerne but rather feeding too much lucerne.


Lucerne may have a higher protein content than other roughage options, but one cannot look at the numbers alone. Digestibility must be considered. Protein in cereals and pulses are high digestible, up to 90%. Only 50-60% of protein in lucerne is digested in the foregut. The added benefit of lucerne is that the rest of the protein is not wasted. Undigested protein will be available as food to the microbes of the hindgut, acting as a prebiotic which helps to keep these vital organisms in good health. This makes lucerne a valuable feed to performance horses as they are often under a lot of stress and go long periods of time without access to roughage. These factors increase the risk of gastric ulcers. Lucerne can be fed directly before work and will help to retain the gastric acids in the correct part of the stomach. The calcium and proteins both act to help neutralise or buffer acid in the stomach, again reducing the risk of ulcers. Undigested protein will act as a buffer in the hindgut, reducing the risk of laminitis for instance. A by-product of digesting lucerne is internal heat, this is not ideal for racehorses, eventers, or endurance horses, especially on hot days so one should feed lucerne with caution. Lucerne also has a high phytoestrogen content, which is like clover and can potentially upset the cycling of mares and cause reproductive issues. Like clover, lucerne also high in phytodynamic pigments which are the real cause of sunburn and mud fever.


How much can we safely feed to our horses? There are varying opinions on this. Anywhere between 15-40% of their diet can be made up of lucerne. It is important to take your horses whole diet into consideration and keep the feeding of lucerne within the recommended daily intake limits. Lucerne is a more expensive roughage option but feeding it in moderation has a lot of benefits. One has to think of lucerne as the balancer of roughages, a small amount goes a long way.


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