Did the Hay Cause Colic?

Pete G Gibbs, PhD, of Texas A&M University, addresses an EQUUS reader's concerns about a possible link between feeding Bermuda hay and colic.

Question:We’ve purchased round bales of coastal Bermuda grass to feed to our horses. They have been previously fed fescue hay and are used to it. About six weeks into the Bermuda–fed free choice–one of our horses colicked. Our veterinarian said it was because the Bermuda was so leafy that the horses eat it without having the need to drink as much water. Also, in the cooler months, the need for water drops. Both of these factors, the veterinarian said, increase the likelihood of colic. He said that fescue’s characteristic tougher texture usually results in the horses taking in more water than if they just had Bermuda. I am confused about all of this. I have scheduled my spring plantings based on Bermuda, but I’m wondering if I should abandon these plans.

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Answer: These types of questions are difficult to answer, primarily because so many factors can predispose a horse to colic. Coastal Bermuda grass round bales are used successfully in horse feeding programs all over Texas and in other southern states. Therefore, to say with certainty that the grass caused the colic is difficult.

If, however, the hay in the round bale was of questionable quality, several factors may have contributed to colic. For example, if the hay contained mold there is some chance the horse ingested enough to cause digestive upset. Other problems can occur when grass is extremely mature at baling. There is some evidence that the long-term intake of extremely indigestible fiber fractions can lead to impaction colic. And, without a doubt, inadequate water intake can disrupt moisture balance in the gut to the extent that colic can result. But is difficult to ascertain if the horse did not drink enough water because of diet or because of the quality or lack of availability of the water itself.

So, in short, I know of no published evidence that would cause alarm in my mind about providing round bales of coastal Bermuda grass hay, provided it is of good quality. To discourage them from ingesting too much in too little time, I would caution to avoid introducing such hay when the horses are extremely hungry. And remember that it is critical to ensure that the horses have access to a good water source.




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