Measuring Pasture Dry Matter Intake of Horses

Why Is It Important to Accurately Measure Horse Dry Matter Intake?*

The ability to predict a horse’s rate of pasture dry matter intake (DMI) assists horse owners/managers in accounting for pasture’s contribution toward a horse’s daily nutrient requirements. Accounting for nutrients obtained from pasture improves the ability to accurately balance rations thereby preventing inefficiencies associated with over- or under- feeding nutrients. This presentation will review pasture DMI estimates for horses reported in scientific literature, sources of variation associated with the measurements, and methods used to measure pasture DMI.

Pasture dry matter intake varies considerably. Estimates for continuously grazing horses range from 1.5 to 2.5% of body weight in dry matter (DM). Factors contributing to variability in pasture DMI include herbage mass available for grazing, sward height, plant maturity, plant chemical composition, plant palatability, horse physiological status and time allowed for grazing. Dry matter intake tends to increase as pasture herbage mass increases, provided forage does not become over-mature. Sward height may also play a role in dry matter intake as it can influence harvest efficiency (e.g., bit size and rate of chewing necessary to swallow ingested forage). Level of plant maturity and sward height are also related to plant chemical composition. As plants reach maturity acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) increase. Both ADF and NDF concentration are negatively correlated to a horse’s preference for forage. Plant nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) has been reported to be positively correlated with horse pasture plant preference. Therefore plant chemical composition (ADF, NDF, NSC) influences horse preference and likely influences pasture DM intake. Dry matter intake is also influenced by horse physiological status. Horses having physiological states with nutrient requirements above maintenance may also have greater pasture dry matter intakes (e.g., lactating mares). Dry matter intake is also influenced by the amount of time a horse is allowed to graze. As the amount of time allowed for grazing is restricted a horse’s rate of dry matter intake increases. Therefore it is possible in some cases for horses to have restricted pasture access yet still consume a significant amount of forage DM due to an increased rate of DMI.

What Did We Do?

Several methods exist to measure pasture intake among grazing horses, yet none are perfect and all face challenges in their application. The primary methods are herbage mass difference, difference in BW pre- versus post-grazing, and marker techniques (e.g., alkanes, acid-insoluble ash etc…). Herbage mass difference measures the herbage mass prior to grazing and again following grazing. This is accomplished by harvesting multiple small forage sub-samples each having the same area (e.g., a sub-sample is harvested within a .25 m x .25 m frame at a height of 2.5 cm above the ground). The difference between pre- and post-grazing herbage mass reflects the amount of forage consumed by the horse. However, as the time between pre- and post-grazing increases, pasture re-growth contributes to error in this measurement. An additional source of error in this measurement results from variability in sub-samples used to predict pre- and post-grazing herbage mass. Therefore this met hod tends to work best in small areas where grazing takes place less than 12 h. Change in body weight during a grazing bout, corrected for fecal, urine and other water loss, is another method used to predict dry matter intake. However, this method requires an efficient means of collecting feces and urine (e.g., collection harness apparatus) and requires a livestock scale having a relatively high sensitivity. The sensitivity of many livestock scales is ± 1 kg, which can represent considerable variation for smaller intakes. Chemical markers, either inherent to the plant or provided externally, provide a means of measuring DMI in a natural grazing setting. Markers rely on the following principle: Intake = fecal output/indigestibility. Fecal output is determined by feeding a known amount of an external marker, not present in pasture plants (e.g., even-chained alkanes) and then measuring its dilution in the feces. Indigestibility is calculated as 1 – digestibility. Digestibility is determined by the ratio of a marker concentration within the plant to that in the feces. Internal markers used for estimating digestibility in horses include odd-chained alkanes and acid-insoluble ash. Marker methods provide accurate measures but are relatively expensive and require considerable care when sampling forage (e.g., the composition of forage sampled must reflect the composition of the forage consumed).

What Did We Learn?

Although each of these methods has their short comings they can provide a starting point to estimate dry matter intake. Coupling these estimates with horse performance measures (change in BW or body condition, average daily gain for growing horses) should be used in conjunction with these estimates in order to validate them and correct for their sources of error. Ultimately, these methods can be used to develop models that incorporate factors responsible for variation in DMI among horses to more accurately predict pasture intake thereby facilitating efficient use of pasture derived nutrients in feeding horses.


Paul D. Siciliano is a Professor of Equine Management and Nutrition in the Department of Animal Science, North Carolina State University. He teaches classes in equine management and conducts research in the area of equine grazing management.

Additional Information

Chavez, S.J., P.D. Siciliano and G.B. Huntington. 2014. Intake estimation of horses grazing tall fescue (Lolium arundinaceum) or fed tall fescue hay. Journal of Animal Science. 92:p.2304–2308.

Siciliano, P.D. 2012. Estimation of pasture dry matter intake and its practical application in grazing management for horses. Page 9-12 in Proc. 10th Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference. N.G. Zimmermann ed., Timonium, MA, March 2012.

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