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Feeding During Drought

July 2018 by Tania Cubitt, PhD, HyGain Feeds,

Droughts are part of life for horse owners in Australia. Each drought brings its own set of difficulties. How well you survive drought will depend on the initial plan of action and the modifications undertaken to your strategy as the drought progresses.

Planning and decision-making must be done early. If you leave your decisions until the drought worsens, many of the management options available early on may no longer be available to you. Prices for horses usually drop dramatically, agistment dries up, and feed and hay prices generally soar.

The first step is to list your property’s financial and physical resources, so the effects of various strategies, both short- and long-term can be calculated. Water is probably the first thing to consider, as if this resource is inadequate, it will be difficult to retain large numbers of horses.

The next step is to estimate when you think the drought will break. This will effect your calculations on how long you will be feeding your horses, how much it will cost, and whether you decide to sell horses or not. 

It is best to over-estimate the time you expect to hand feed your horses to be on the safe side. The list below provides questions you will need to address when deciding what to do in drought. Check to make sure your action plan addresses these questions.

  • What is my current financial situation?
  • Have I the time and facilities to feed all of my horses?
  • How long will I have to feed?
  • Am I aiming at maintenance, growth or competition targets? What are the feeding needs of various classes of horses (foals, lactating mares, etc.)?
  • What fodder/feed will I use and what will they cost at various stages of the drought?
  • Will I have adequate water supplies to survive the drought?
  • How widespread is the drought?
  • Is suitable agistment available?
  • What prices are horses now?
  • What prices will horses be after the drought?
  • What effect will reduced stock numbers have on my overall feeding costs?
  • What effect will my strategy have on the pastures and soil?
  • What effect will my action plan have on the long-term viability of my property and horses?

Remember, allowing horses to starve is not an option and is an offence under Australian law.

The plan does not need to be implemented all at once and should be flexible to allow for changes in circumstances. For example, you may only sell a certain class of horse or buy some fodder if conditions do not improve by a certain date.

You will find having a plan of action will greatly reduce the amount of stress on you, your family and the horses themselves. Even though the plan may only need continual modification as the drought progresses, each family member will be working towards specific aims, especially if you have discussed the plan with them beforehand.

Environmental impact

You need to consider the long-term effect your plan will have on your pastures and soils. The environmental management of a horse property is usually the last thing considered by horse owners.

If your pastures are mostly annual species or your soil type is unstable, then you may need to lower the number of horses you intend to keep on your land, so as to minimise the effects a drought has on your property. You should consider confining at least some of your horses to a small part of your land. This could mean yarding or stabling them for some period of time. Stud managers have successfully undertaken this option in previous droughts and emerged from them with minimal impact.

If you were not on your property during the previous drought, talk to neighbours or relations about what happened to your district during that period. They may be able to suggest strategies that reduce the impact of drought, without significantly increasing your financial burden.

Management options:

1. Toughing it out

It is your legal responsibility to ensure horses do no starve or become distressed during a drought. Therefore, doing nothing is not an option. You may be tempted to do nothing in the hope a poor season will not turn into a drought. In the meantime, paddock feed diminishes, the condition of your horses deplete and feed prices escalate. Once these changes occur, many options are no longer available to you.

The key message is to plan early and set deadlines to activate specific action. Remember doing nothing is not an option.

2. Agisting horses

Agistment is sometimes more economical than feeding. The time saved from not feeding may be more usefully employed. Agistment reduces grazing pressure, increasing feed available for the remaining horses on your property. It may be appropriate to only agist some horses. Foals, lactating mares and stallions should be kept on stud, as they generally require a high level on maintenance. Dry mares and idle stock should be considered first for agistment.

Enquire in your own district for agistment first. This should be done early in the drought to find suitable paddocks, otherwise you may miss your opportunity to agist. As the drought becomes more widespread, agistment becomes harder to find and the cost of agistment increases dramatically. It may then be cheaper to feed them on your own property. It may also be impractical to supervise horses (especially foaling mares) at a distance. The cost of transport, chance of disease and potential financial losses also have to be taken into account.

3. Selling horses

If you manage many horses, selling some  is one option where early planning and action is advantageous. Selling decisions should be made well before horses have lost too much condition and before market prices plummet.

When deciding what horses to sell and the timing, the following factors should be considered:

  • Present value of horses,
  • Quality of horses,
  • Capacity of stud to carry horses through drought,
  • Impact on the studs breeding program,
  • Taxation,
  • Likely demand for horses at the end of the drought, and
  • Likely length of the drought.

In general, a sound policy is to sell some and feed the rest. 

For owners with small numbers of horses, this information may not be as relevant, as you will generally continue to stable and feed your horses. Careful planning, however, can minimise costs, and ensure your horses have access to quality feed and water throughout the drought.

4. Feeding horses

In large-scale operations, supplementary feeding is a time-consuming job, but some form of supplementary feeding is required. Horses will have to be fed rations that will keep them in at least a condition score of 2 until the drought ends. Short-term increases in rations may be required for pregnant or lactating mares, and horses destined for sale. Budgets need to be carefully calculated, as profit margins during droughts are minimal for stud owners.

Previous experience shows quality dry or ‘standing hay’ pastures, stubble and failed crops are often much better nutritionally than first anticipated. This can reduce the feeding levels needed to maintain live weights and, thus, the estimated costs of retaining stock. Horses should be weighed or conditioned scored regularly to ensure they are not over- or under-fed.

When quality pasture or hay is not available, there are alternative fibre sources that can be added to the diet, such as Hygain® Fibressential®, the nutritionally enhanced chaff nuggets. The most common are ‘super fibres’, such as beet pulp and legume hulls. Hygain® Micrbeet® is a beet pulp-based alternative fibre source.