More low-carb horse hay needed, consultant says

Natalie Shaw, an equine nutrition consultant in Ellensburg, Wash., is encouraging hay growers to grow low carb hay for horses that are becoming more urbanized and less physically active.

Natalie Shaw, an equine nutrition consultant, is on a mission to encourage Pacific Northwest hay growers to grow low-carbohydrate hay.

She said there is a market for that type of feed because the horse population is becoming more urbanized and less physically active. At the same time, these horses are enjoying improved nutrition.

“This calorie imbalance has led to an explosion of overweight horses,” said Shaw, a long-time horse owner and a resident of Ellensburg, Wash.

Shaw gave a presentation on the growing demand for low carb hay at the Oregon Hay and Forage Association’s Hay Conference in Lakeview, Ore., on Nov. 17. She will give her presentation again at the Northwest Hay Expo in Kennewick, Wash., on Jan. 17.

Shaw said advances in veterinary medicine have led to a better understanding of metabolic issues related to obesity in horses. Research has also shown a connection between these issues and the hoof disease known as laminitis.

In her presentation, Shaw said one veterinary researcher has estimated that nearly 20 percent of horses in Oregon and Washington are overweight or obese, leaving them vulnerable to laminitis.

Shaw said treatments for these conditions can include a diet with less non-structural carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and calories.

“My primary objective is to help forage growers understand what it means to be low carb, to actively understand the growing and harvesting factors that influence low carb in horse feed,” said the nutrition consultant. “I want to bridge the gap between the equine and forage communities. There’s a growing demand for this type of feed.”

Luke Mullet, a hay grower near Wamic in northcentral Oregon, grew 20 acres of teff grass hay during the past summer months. The owner of Golden Oak Farm said there was “definitely a market” for his two cuttings of teff.

“I thought it was fairly easy to grow, but some other growers have said they think it is too difficult,” Mullet said. “I plan to grow more acreage of teff next summer.”

Shaw said research in recent years has shown teff to be a good low carb hay. Mylen Bohle, a Central Oregon forage agronomist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, agreed that teff is a good low carb hay, but explained it is usually only good for two cuttings because it can’t tolerate frost. He added teff loves hot weather and doesn’t need a lot of nitrogen.

John Volle, a hay grower in the Prineville, Ore., area, said he had a second cutting of hay this past summer that tested as low carb. He sold a couple truckloads of the hay to an equine rescue facility in Santa Barbara, California.

“We’ve grown it before,” Volley said of low carb hay. “We test for it, but we don’t guarantee it. We let the consumer give it a try.”

Shaw said some of the factors that hay growers must consider in an effort to decrease the non-structural carbs in the feed is the time of day and the time of season the hay is harvested, its height at that time, its stage of maturity, the curing time, nitrogen fertilization, irrigation, solar radiation and fluctuations in temperature.

Volle said he has found his second cutting is usually low carb because at that time the weather overall is warmest, especially the nights, so the hay grows all night, using up more carbs as it grows.

Bohle said there is a market for the low carb feed, “but you never really know what is going to be low carb until you test for it because there are so many factors that can impact it.”

Shaw has created an online website — Low Carb Horse Hay — in an effort to close the gap between hay growers and horse owners. Some of the resources available to growers through this website are consultation on how to grow low carb hay, analytical laboratories to send hay samples, how to correctly interpret the lab results, pricing suggestions and online marketing of low carb hay.

Shaw said there’s a learning curve in progress for an immature market, but a few good practices will produce a relatively low non-structural and non-fiber carbohydrate teff grass compared to cool season grasses.

More information on low carb hay can be obtained by going online to or by contacting Shaw at 406-599-7694.

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