By Heather Smith Thomas
In some areas of the country, alfalfa is a regular part of life. It’s readily available and commonly fed, so it’s a logical foundation for many horses’ diets. In other areas, alfalfa is a delicacy of sorts, shipped in from different regions and bought a bale at a time on a vet’s recommendation to help certain horses that need nutritional support. For some types of horses—in either of those areas—-alfalfa simply isn’t a great choice. And, so, that fragrant green bale comes loaded with nutrients and, for some horse owners, a multitude of misconceptions.
When looking for good-quality alfalfa, be sure it's clean with no dust or mold--just as you would with any hay.
Whatever your alfalfa experience, we’re here to tell you everything you need to know about this forage, starting with a little bit of history, and clear up any confusion about it.
Alfalfa Goes Way Back
Forage for horses can be divided into two categories—grasses and legumes. Grasses you’re likely familiar with include orchardgrass, timothy, and bermudagrass and are long and stemmy. Forage legumes, such as clover and alfalfa, are members of the pea family and, so, are cousins of peanuts and garbanzo beans.
“Alfalfa is a perennial legume, grown in most regions of the U.S. for horses and other livestock,” says Krishona Martinson, PhD, associate professor and equine extension specialist in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Animal Science, in Falcon Heights.
Alfalfa was one of the first domesticated forages, planted and harvested in what is now Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan several thousand years ago. Early farmers discovered its nutritional benefits, especially for hard-working horses, says Ray Smith, PhD, forage extension -specialist at the University of Kentucky (UK), in Lexington. “The main feed for horses of early armies in those regions was alfalfa,” he says.
“When alfalfa was first brought to the eastern part of the U.S. in the 1700s from Europe, it didn’t survive well—partly because of wetter soils and lower pH,” says Smith.