“How do I make my pasture “low-carb”? “Can I plant teff grass in my fields to make them safe for my metabolic horse”? “Where do I buy “low-carb” pasture seed”? 

I’ve been receiving these sorts of questions surprisingly often lately. Unfortunately, to all you suffering equine owners out there, I”m terribly sorry to say this, but its just not correct to think about your pastures this way. Or better put, these are the wrong questions to ask. Better questions to ask are…

  1. “How do I make my pasture low carb” to “How do I make my pasture healthier”? Pastures are finicky things- living ecosystems of their own- that are at the whim of many natural processes (i.e. weather, grazing, competition). Plant biologists and agronomists have known for decades that grasses will conserve and deplete stores of simple, non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s) as energy is needed by the plant. When we think about the NSCs being readily available from the parts of the plant that our horses graze (the tops), we have to consider a host of factors affecting that plant each and every hour of the day. As you can imagine, the list is long and their relationships with each other are not understood. For example, which factors are more important than the others? Below is a list of factors that we KNOW influence the non-structural carbohydrates in grass plants. The factors that farmers can control (bolded) are the ones being researched by LCHH founder, Natalie Shaw, to attempt to make growing “low carb” teff more predictable. The healthiest pastures are the ones with the happiest plants, and the happiest plants are the lowest in NSCs the greatest amount of time. What does this mean to you? It means extremely good pasture management that keeps the grass at least 3-4″ inches tall, because most grass plant species store their energy reserves as NSC’s in the lower 3 inches of the plant. To accomplish HEALTHY pastures prevent overgrazing, fertilize and water appropriately, and prevent weeds by keeping good grasses competitive with strong root systems.
    • Time of day the grass is cut
    • Cutting height
    • Diurnal fluctuations in temperature
    • Rain and irrigation 
    • Fertilization
    • Maturity of the plant when cut
    • Heat or insect stress
  2. “Can I plant teff seed in my field to make it low carb” to “Where can I source certified, low carb teff grass hay”? Nope. I appreciate your line of thinking, but there are several reasons why you must abandon the idea of planting teff grass in your horse pastures. First off, teff grass is an annual which means it dies off every year at the first thought of frost. You’d have to plant it every single year. Secondly, it will not compete with other grass species that are meant to grow here. Teff grass comes from the deserts of Ethiopia and loves the extreme heat. It must be planted and nurtured by a farmer. With that said, if you are a farmer growing alfalfa and/or timothy, there has been some successful intercropping of teff, but it must be done just so. Better question is “where can I source great, low carb teff hay?”, and I hope that you know the answer to that. Because there are so many factors that influence the NSC of teff grass, it is best to find a LCHH grower/retailer that sells certified teff hay. The NSC level can be predicted using forage analysis that represents the NSCs of the plant at time of harvest.
  3. “Where do I buy low-carb pasture seed” to “how do I make my pasture’s healthier”? We are coming full circle here, aren’t we. Now that you know that healthy pastures make for the lowest carb pastures, you should understand that there is NO such thing as “low carb” pasture seed mixes. One of the most important things that you can do when turning out at-risk horses is to 1) turn them out before 10am, 2) prevent overgrazing (keep pastures 3-4 inches tall), and 3) control the caloric intake of your horse by limiting turn out time and increasing exercise.

Natalie Shaw has been an equine nutrition consultant for 10 years in the Pacific Northwest. Her experiences consulting with horse owners has led her to develop the Low Carb Horse Hay Certification which aims to build bridges between the forage and equestrian industries. She can best be contacted by phone at 406-599-7694. 

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