Feeding for Thought : Alfalfa helps preventing gastric ulcers

Alfalfa Field

Whenever one is looking to address or prevent equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), often times the daily ration is examined carefully along with changes in daily management. In recent years, alfalfa has become touted as something to include in a horse’s daily diet to help prevent ulcers. This theory began with a study performed by the University of Tennessee that examined which diet would cause ulcers: alfalfa hay with textured grain or brome hay with no grain (Nadeau et al., 2000). While the researchers believed that the incidence of ulcers would be higher in the grain-consuming group, they were quite surprised when the opposite was true and the alfalfa-containing ration combined with grain prevailed.

Later on, a similar study was conducted by Texas A&M in 2007 with both groups being fed an appropriate grain ration along with either alfalfa hay or bermuda grass hay (Lybbert et al., 2007). This second study also concluded that alfalfa hay did seem to decrease the severity of gastric ulcers in horses with confirmed EGUS while not increasing the overall incidence of ulcers when compared to bermuda grass hay. Even more recently, a very new and exciting study from the University of Melbourne strongly suggests that a diet heavily supplemented with chopped alfalfa chaff may cure gastric ulcers in as little as 28 days as confirmed by gastroscopy.

The prevailing belief on why alfalfa helps prevent and reduce gastric ulcer incidence in horses is because of its buffering capacity (Fadel, 1992). Buffering capacity is the ability of a substance to neutralize the pH of a system. In our case, that would mean that the ability of alfalfa to neutralize the acidic pH of the stomach is greater than most commonly fed horse feeds. The buffering capacity of alfalfa may be credited to its high magnesium and calcium content, which will often come with acid-neutralizing bicarbonates, along with the high protein of the alfalfa itself. While the proteins are made up of amino acids, these acids are considered “weak acids,” and would actually help further neutralize the “strong acid” solution found in the stomach. Given that protein content seems to be the best predictor of buffering capacity across several different feedstuffs, it is possible that these amino acids are more effective in neutralizing stomach acid than bicarbonates.

In most barns, the best way to incorporate the ulcer-fighting properties of alfalfa into your feed regime is to include a flake or two of high quality alfalfa at lunch, depending on your horse’s needs. This can be boosted further by using either Cavalor® Strucomix Original or Cavalor® Strucomix Senior. Both of these feeds contain “Struconcept,” which is a high quality fiber mix consisting primarily of alfalfa chaff. Alfalfa chaff refers to only the stems of the alfalfa plant, as to avoid the excess sugars sometimes found in the leaves. While many horses are only fed either Cavalor® Strucomix Original or Senior, many people incorporate about .75-2.25 lbs of one of these feeds into their horse’s daily ration to help prevent ulcers from taking hold in the first place in addition to their base grain.

For more serious cases, Cavalor has a new feed on the market called Cavalor® Fiberforce. Cavalor® Fiberforce is high in fiber, very low in starch and sugar, grain-free feed made up of primarily Struconcept and flaxseed pellets designed to address a variety of digestive ailments. For severe ulcers, a horse’s concentrate ration should be complete replaced by Cavalor® Fiberforce at a rate of 2-4lbs daily for at least 30 days or until the horse is able to return to full work.

Fadel, JG. 1992. In vitro buffering capacity changes of seven commodities under controlled moisture and heating conditions. Journal of Dairy Science. 75:1287-1295. Lybbert, TC. 2007. Gastric ulcer syndrome in exercising horses fed different types of hay. Master’s thesis, Texas A&M University. Nadeau, JA, FM Andrews, AG Matthew, RA Argenzio, JT Blackfort, M Sohtell, AM Saxton. 2000. Evaluation of diet as a cause of gastric ulcers in horses. American Journal of Veterinary Research. 61 (7): 784-90.

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Rob is a director of Equitain and also Kingswood Equestrian Centre. As a Medical Biochemist he takes an interest in all aspects of performance of the horse from a nutritional and saddlery perspective. Areas of speciality : Nutrition, Bitting, Saddlery


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