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Alfalfa Pellets vs. Cubes: What’s Better for Your Horses?

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We recently visited a friend’s horse farm and noticed he’s feeding alfalfa cubes to his broodmares. This made me think about incorporating cubes to our horses’ diet, but I wonder if alfalfa pellets would even be better than cubes and easier to store.

There is no nutritional difference between alfalfa pellets and cubes, so the choice between the two is based on which type your horses prefer and which you prefer to feed and store. Alfalfa pellets, cubes, and hay provide the same essential nutrients per pound.

Most horse owners know the benefits of feeding alfalfa hay, but with limited room, pellets and cubes are great options. But, there is a lot to choosing the right application for your horse, and storage is just one consideration.

This article is one in a series on horse hay I wrote, the main article being: Horse Hay: An Owner’s Guide.

TypeNutritional valuePriceStoragePalatability
Alfalfa pellets16% protein, 1.5% crude fat, and 30% fiberPrices vary from 15-40 dollars per 40 lb bag. Bags easy storage:
3/16ths to 1/2 inches pellets
Tasty and easy to consume. Soaking slows eating and softens for senior horses.
Alfalfa cubes16% protein, 1.5% crude fat, and 30% fiberPrices vary from 15-40 dollars per 40 lb bag.Bags easy storage:
1 1/2 to 2-inch cubes
Tasty but hard, best fed broken and soaked in water.
Alfalfa hayEach bale is different. Must be analyzedPrices vary by region21 in wide, by 16 inches high, by 3 to 4 feet long.Tasty hay, long-stem forage.

Alfalfa pellets and cubes have the same nutritional value.

One significant advantage of alfalfa pellets and cubes is the consistency of their nutritional value. Both are formulated and checked to ensure each batch has the correct amount of proteins, fats, and fibers, which is listed on each container.

Standlee is a significant producer and seller of commercial alfalfa pellets and cubes and provides an analysis of their product on the bags of pellets and cubes they sell.

I checked the analysis of the pellets and cubes and found that they each contain a minimum of 16% protein, 1.5% crude fat, and 30% fiber.

One pound of alfalfa pellets and one pound of cubes provide the same amount of protein, fat, and fiber as a pound of alfalfa hay.

However, alfalfa hay protein varies considerably based on the age it’s cut, where it’s grown, and how it is cured and stored. In order to get an accurate measure of the hays’ nutritional value, it has to be analyzed.

Alfalfa pellets have less dust than cubes.

To make alfalfa pellets, alfalfa hay is cut into small sections, pulverized, and loaded into a die where steam is added to moisturize the alfalfa and to make it pliable to concentrate.

This concentrated alfalfa mixture is turned in the die vask and pushed through a set of holes. The pellets exit the die warm and quickly cool and harden. Pellets are typically 3/16ths to 1/2 inches in diameter.

Picture of a girl feeding her horse alfalfa pellets by hand,

The final product is pure alfalfa grass pellets with little moisture and minimal dust. The protein and mineral levels are consistent in the entire batch.

Cubes are processed similarly, but the alfalfa hay isn’t pulverized but instead coarsely chopped into small pieces and then steamed. The die machine compresses the alfalfa mixture and forms it into 1 1/2 to 2-inch cubes instead of pellets.

Although Alfalfa cubes have slightly more dust than pellets, both have considerably less dust and waste than standard Alfalfa hay.

Alfalfa pellets are more convenient to feed than cubes.

Alfalfa pellets kept in a drum are quickly scooped out and fed to your horses in a bucket. They need no premixing and are suitable to be supplied to most horses straight from the bag.

The biggest concern is that some horses gobble them down too fast and choke. And since there is a risk of choking, don’t leave your animal unattended when it’s eating pellets.

For horses that are fast eaters, you can mix the pellets with their feed or soak them in water before offering them to your animal. Pellets are not a substitute for long forage in your horses’ diet,

Cubes are too hard for most horses to eat in the form they are bought. It’s recommended that each cube be broken into smaller pieces for your horse to eat. Cubes are eaten slower than pellets, which is a good thing.

Many people soak cubes for 30 minutes before feeding. Soaking serves two purposes; it softens the cubes and increases your horse’s water intake, which is always a good thing.

Alfalfa cubes are a better source of forage than pellets.

Horses need long-stem forage because of their unique digestive system. It’s recommended they eat at least 1% of their body weight per day as forage as either hay, grass, or chaff with some grain.

Most horses, with access to pasture grass or suitable portions of hay, consume 2% of their body weight in forage per day. So a 1000 pound horse would typically consume 20 lb of dry forage in a day.

Horses require long-stem fiber in their diet to aid digestion of their food, which pellets don’t provide. Pellets are too processed and are such a small size that they aren’t big enough to stimulate the digestive tract and move food or promote tract health.

Because pellets lack long-stem fiber, they can’t be a substitute for hay. However, when quality alfalfa hay isn’t a viable option, cubes can be substituted.

Alfalfa cubes are chopped and compressed but not pulverized like pellets. Therefore they do provide some of the benefits of long-stem forage and can safely replace hay in an equine’s diet.

If hay is scarce, pellets can be used in conjunction with either of the above two options to replace grass completely, but they cannot be used alone to replace hay completely. Besides water, forage is the second most essential part of a horses’ diet.

Soak alfalfa pellets when feeding to older horses.

Alfalfa pellets and cubes fed wet are good alternatives for horses with dental problems. Pellets are small and easy for older horses to consume once they have been softened.

Picture of hay pellets for horses,

Pellets and cubes, to a certain extent, are hard, 30 minutes of soaking before feeding make a suitable protein source for horses that have difficulty eating grass or hay because of dental problems.

Pellets are a tremendous forage-based source of calories and protein for older animals that aren’t able to maintain a regular equine diet. But most horses in good health get all the protein they need eating grass and hay.

Alfalfa cubes and pellets can cause colic.

Two primary causes of colic in horses is overeating, and diets that include grains or concentrated foods. If allowed, horses eat more alfalfa cubes and pellets than is healthy. And pellets are concentrated alfalfa hay, which also increases the risk of colic.

A horse will likely eat all the alfalfa cubes they have available, but when fed alfalfa hay, they are picky and often waste some. Overall it’s believed if a horse is given the opportunity, it will up to 25% more alfalfa cubed than long-stem hay.

Overeating alfalfa leads to obesity and colic. Pellets have two problems related to colic, overeating, and being a concentrate. Because pellets aren’t long-stem forage, they don’t move food through the digestive tract, which can lead to colic. It’s critical to ration alfalfa cubes and pellets.

How much alfalfa cubes should a horse eat a day?

We recently decided to start feeding our horses alfalfa cubes, but we’re unsure how much to feed our horses. So, I decided to research alfalfa cubes to learn what amount to give our horses each day.

The amount of alfalfa cubes you feed a horse is dependant on the size and workload of the animal. Generally, horses eat between 1 1/2-2 lbs. of their body weight.

If a horse is in training or working hard, its calorie needs increase. A typical horse weighing 1,100 lbs. should eat approximately 16 pounds of alfalfa cubes per day.

Horses are individuals, and their diet should be adjusted based on their fitness level and body condition. If you notice your horse losing weight, feeding 1.5% of its body weight in alfalfa increase the volume of cubes you’re feeding.

Are alfalfa pellets and cubes as good as alfalfa hay?

Some of my old-school horse buddies will always feed alfalfa hay and aren’t convinced that alfalfa pellets and cubes are as beneficial to horses as feeding hay. So I decided to research the benefits of hay over cubes and pellets

Eating hay benefits horses in ways not obtainable by eating pellets or cubes. For instance, horses fed hay spend more time grazing, which produces saliva, promotes dental and digestive health, and prevents boredom.

Many owners believe in feeding hay to their horses, but there are some advantages to feeding pellets and cubes.

Alfalfa is high-quality hay.

Horses are grazing animals that have small stomachs; because of this, they benefit from eating small amounts over a long period. Food comes into their stomach and passes through relatively quickly to their hindgut. Also, the long fibers of hay form barriers that soak up acids preventing ulcers in the stomach.

picture of bales of alfalfa hay in a horse barn,

Because of the speed horses eat cubes and pellets, they are susceptible to colic and boredom. However, colic can occur for a variety of reasons, but to reduce the risk, feed small portions of soaked cubes and pellets to manage their intake.

Grazing horses keep their minds occupied, picking through and eating hay and grass; horses that eat cubes and pellets often eat fast and have idle time, which leads to boredom and cribbing.

Horses allowed to graze are continually chewing, which helps wear their teeth in a consistent pattern, which results in better dental health. Grazing horses typically need less dental care.

Chewing also creates saliva in the horse’s mouth, which provides moisture to the food and lubricates the intestines. The increased saliva decreases the risk of impaction and ulcers.

Alfalfa is palatable and a highly digestible food source for horses. It is a good source of energy, proteins, minerals, and vitamins and is readily available across the United States.

High-quality alfalfa should be leafy and bright green. The leaves are the location the protein and vitamins reside, and the bright green color indicates proper curing, lack of mold, and carotene content.

There are some advantages of pellets and cubes over hay.

Pellets and cubes are easy to pack and feed when trailering your horse long distances. Cubes and pellets take less storage space, and there is no waste. In hay storage areas, there is always a lot of hay left on the ground that needs to be picked up and discarded.

Pellets and cubes are easy to pack and feed when trailering your horse long distances. Cubes and pellets take less storage space and there is no waste. In hay storage areas there is always a lot of hay left on the ground that needs to be picked up and discarded.

When feeding hay horses, often only eat the leaves and leave the stems; with pellets, they consume the entire product. Bagged alfalfa is nutrient consistent, and you know you’re getting what you pay for.

The manufacture labels each bag so you can adjust your horse’s diet quickly. Both Alfalfa cubes and pellets have less dust than hay and are an excellent alternative forage source for horses with respiratory issues.

Pellets are an excellent way to get calories and protein in a senior horse with missing or broken down teeth. Well-softened hay pellets may be the only nutritious food source the horse can eat.

Take your time when switching from hay to pellets.

Horses have a sensitive digestive system that’s easily disrupted when their diet is changed. For this reason, changes must be made gradually over ten days to two weeks; if not, colic or other digestive disorders are a risk.

Introduce the pellets by adding them to the top of your horse’s hay ration while simultaneously cutting back on its hay. Gradually, increase the pellets and continue to reduce the hay you regularly feed your horse.

Remember, pellets are not a substitute for all your horse’s forage needs, it can replace alfalfa hay if your animal has other hay or grass, but a horse must consume long-stem forage for proper digestion. Also, note that one pound of alfalfa pellets has the same nutritional value as one pound of hay.

Summary

Alfalfa cubes overall are better than pellets for our purposes. Pellets can’t be a substitute for alfalfa hay, but cubes can. Alfalfa cubes are convenient, provide high nutrient value, and have little waste.

The only issue is controlling horses’ daily intake. I don’t think we will substitute cubes for hay full-time, but it is a viable alternative. If you’re interested in reading more about feeding horses check out this article: What Does a Horse Eat? An Essential Feeding Guide

FAQ

Is bermuda hay a bad for horses?

No, bermudagrass hay isn’t bad for horses, but it lacks all the protein, essential minerals, and vitamins horses need. On a positive note, it has a high fiber content which helps horses digest food and absorb nutrients.
You can learn more about Bermuda hay in this article: Bermuda Hay – Is It Good for Your Horse? 5 Facts to Ponder

Does feeding beet pulp to your horse cause diarrhea?

Beet pulp doesn’t typically cause diarrhea in horses. In fact many horse owners feed beet pulp to their horses with diarrhea because it’s high in fiber and dry content, which helps concentrate the stomachs liquid.
You can learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of feeding your horse beet pulp in this article: Feeding Beet Pulp to Horses: the Good and the Bad

Resources:

Standlee is the premier manufacturer of alfalfa pellets and cubes. The prices from Amazon are high, but I provide you a link so you can read the reviews of what customers have to say about their products. The pellets have a rating of 4.8 out of 5 stars, and the cubes received 4.5 stars.