Alfalfa has been fed to livestock since the ancient Greek and Roman eras, possibly earlier and is now a common feature in many feed rooms. But what is alfalfa, how much do you know about it and why is it such a valuable feed for horses?
Scientific Name: Medicago sativa
Other names: Lucerne
Likely place of Origin: South East Asia
What is alfalfa?
Alfalfa is a perennial flowering legume belonging to the pea and bean family. It grows to approximately 1m in height, has clusters of small purple flowers and a root network which typically grows to 2-3 metres beneath the soil. Like all legumes, alfalfa is able to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air and convert it to protein.
The majority of alfalfa fed to horses in the UK is pelleted or short chopped in the field and then heat dried to produce alfalfa based chaffs/ fibre feeds. However once it has been cut, alfalfa can also be made into hay, haylage and even silage.
Alfalfa for horses
• Nutrient rich
Thanks to its ‘nitrogen fixing’ ability and deep root network, alfalfa is relatively high in protein and minerals (particularly calcium), providing a more suitable alternative to straw based fibres for poor doers, breeding stock and horses in hard work.
• Natural buffering capacity
Alfalfa is naturally high in protein and calcium which is thought to provide a buffer for stomach acid. In addition, feeding chopped alfalfa helps to extend eating and therefore many nutritionists recommend including some alfalfa in the diet of horses prone to gastric ulcers.
• Low in starch & sugar
Alfalfa is low in starch and sugar, meaning it can also be included in the diet of excitable horses and laminitics – unlike grass which stores potentially high levels of fructan, alfalfa stores relatively low levels of starch.