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Grazing horses on alfalfa and clover

Quick facts

  • Legumes such as alfalfa and clover offer an alternative to grain when feeding horses with increased nutritional needs.
  • The addition of grass increased the yield of clover pastures, but not alfalfa pastures. 
  • Legume-grass pastures had lower nutritive value compared to legume-only pastures.
  • All tested pastures met the nutritional needs of an adult, idle horse. 
close up of horse eating alfalfa in a pasture

Horses are grazing animals and most horses in the Midwest meet their nutritional needs from cool-season grass pasture or hay.  

Horses that have limited grazing time or increased nutritional needs, such as broodmares or performance horses, are often fed grain to help make up any energy or other nutritional deficiencies. Some owners prefer to limit grain intake.

Legumes like alfalfa and clover offer an alternative to grain because they contain more digestible energy (DE) and crude protein (CP) than grass species.

Although common in horse hay, they are rarely grazed as the sole forage species.

We looked at the possibility of grazing horses on legume pastures. And we found that legumes are a good option for those looking to increase the forage nutritive value of their pastures.

  • Alfalfa can be grazed as a single-species or mixed with grass.
  • We recommend mixing red or white clover with grass because clover doesn't regrow as well when grazed by horses.
  • Legumes can be safely grazed by healthy horses.
  • Alfalfa and red clover can be appropriate pasture species for horses diagnosed with metabolic disorders. If your horse has a diagnosed metabolic disorder, work closely with your veterinarian and an equine nutritionist before grazing. 

What did we do?

  • Six adult, stock-type horses grazed on legume and legume-grass pastures in rotation. 
  • We tested eight alfalfa varieties, one red clover variety and one white clover variety. 
  • We looked at yield, nutritional quality and horse preference of the different forages. 
  • We completed the study over multiple years and seasons. 

What did we find?

Forage yield and persistence of regrowth

  • Alfalfa and alfalfa-grass pastures had the greatest yields, meaning there was more forage available for the horses to eat compared to clover or clover-grass pastures.
  • There was no difference in yield between alfalfa and alfalfa-grass pastures.
  • Adding grass to a clover pasture did increase the yield.

The horses grazed the pastures in rotation. But, by the start of the third year, the pastures had damage that was likely from a combination of hoof traffic, grazing pressure and winter weather events such as ice sheeting.

Both clovers had greater damage (bare ground) compared to the alfalfa. When grass was added to the clover, the pastures had better ground cover compared to clover planted without grass. 

Season yield for legume and legume grass pastures in Minnesota

Forage species 2014 2015 2016
Tons/acre
Alfalfa 6.1 5.8 7.2
Alfalfa-grass 5.7 5.7 7.1
Red clover 3.7 3.2 2.1
Red clover-grass 3.8 4.4 4.9
White clover 2.5 1.9 1.4
White clover-grass 2.9 3.4 5.7

Forage nutrient content

All legume and legume-grass pastures provide a high level of nutrition and exceed the needs of an adult, idle horse.

Equine digestible energy (DE) was high across all legume and legume-grass pastures. For adult idle horses, or those with unlimited access to grazing, this may result in excess weight gain. However, for horses needing to gain weight, those in work and other horses with higher caloric needs, legumes provide an advantage over grass-only pastures and may help alleviate a need for feeding grain. 

With the exception of white clover, all legumes and legume-grass pastures were below 12 percent nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC). Alfalfa pastures contained 10 percent NSC on average. 

NSC at or below 12 percent meets the amount of NSC recommended for horses diagnosed with obesity, laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome or Cushings, which means that these horses can potentially graze alfalfa or red clover pastures. Owners should still routinely test the pasture and establish a grazing plan with help from a veterinarian or equine nutritionist. 

Forage nutritive values of cool-season grasses and legumes

Forage species Equine DE CP NSC NDF* Calcium Phosphorus
Mcal/lb %DM
Alfalfa 1.18 27 10 35 1.3 0.4
Alfalfa-grass 1.17 26 10 38 1.2 0.4
Red clover 1.14 28 10 38 1.4 0.4
Red clover-grass 1.11 26 11 42 1.2 0.4
White clover 1.24 29 13 29 1.2 0.4
White clover-grass 1.10 25 12 43 1.0 0.4

*NDF=neutral detergent fiber

Animal preference

Horses displayed the strongest preference for red and white clover species. But they highly preferred and readily consumed all legumes. 

Devan Catalano, graduate student, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist; and Craig Sheaffer, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2019

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