By Dr Michael Röcken
Veterinary at the Veterinary clinic Starnberg

Green fodder silage has a number of advantages and is excellently suited for horses. It is however important to observe some ground rules for the preparation and use of high-quality materials during the production of bale silage.

In the last ten years, the importance of silage in the feeding of horses has been increasing and will continue to displace hay as a basic form of fodder more aggressively.

In general, one differentiates between two types of green fodder silage:

  • Wilted silage, i.e. moist or wet silage, with a dry matter content (DM) of up to about 35 percent and
  • Haylage (fermented hay) with DM contents typically from 40-60 percent to a maximum of 80 percent

Haylage - a good alternative
Silage is high-quality green fodder for farm animals (particularly cattle) that is preserved through lactic acid fermentation. For all horses, although primarily those that suffer from chronic bronchitis and dust allergies, good green fodder silage in the form of haylage with high dry matter content is an excellent, exclusive and dust-free winter and base fodder and used together with dust-free bedding made of wood chips it is a good solution for horse owners.

However, careful calculation of rations and monitoring of the feed is important. With accurate calculation of the fodder rations, greater savings can be made in terms of expensive concentrated feed with the help of bale silage than with hay. Occasional complaints regarding the quality of bale silage arise primarily from production and storage mistakes and not generally from the bale silage itself. Careful harvesting of the crop and clean storage make bale silage a first-class alternative form of roughage for horses.

Tips for successful preparation and feeding of silage
Silage with less than 35% dry matter content should not be used. If this silage is wrapped in large bales, large amounts of air are frequently contained within it due to the poor compressibility of the crop during the late harvesting. Among other consequences, this results in a pH value that generally remains above 4.5 (the silage is nevertheless stable), which fails to kill some pathogens. This increases the risk that Listeria may be present in the fodder.

If silage is to be used for feeding horses, it should be harvested at a later point in time - as a result, the crop has significantly higher raw fibre content and produces wilted silage or haylage. Good wilted silage can be identified by its green colour, good haylage is light green.

Risks in the production and feeding of silage result from mould growth, rotting areas, dust, soil inclusions, elevated acid concentrations, poor fermentation, insufficient fermentation, mouse faeces, toxic plants and dead animals. Many of these factors lead to contamination with the toxin Clostridium botulinum - botulism. Carefully prepared bale silage exhibits no contaminants, rotting or whitish areas. In addition, high-quality silage is characterised by an aromatic scent that is pleasantly acidic to bread-like.

Silage chopped into small particles smaller than four to five centimetres should not be fed to horses because the chewing response and saliva formation among horses are too low at this consistency. This fodder can cause gullet blockages and congestion among highly voracious horses. If only such short-chopped silage is available e.g. on farms that raise cattle, hay and straw should be fed in advance to prevent this happening and as a chewing substitute. High-quality silage feels "grippy" - similar to hay.

Good, aromatic long-blade haylage without mould growth, free of the products of poor fermentation and other contaminants (mites, carcasses, fertiliser residues), does not produce dust and can be fed to horses without problems - after several days of familiarization.

Overall, feeding green fodder silage is a real alternative to feeding hay - particularly for horses with allergy and airway problems, or with appropriate indications, for horses with gastrointestinal illnesses and after colic operations.

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