Photo credit to Dennis Hancock

The belief that bermudagrass causes colic in horses has been bantered around for a few decades. Though more common in urban areas where the population is further disconnected from agriculture, the thought prevents some horse owners from establishing bermudagrass pastures.

“It’s somewhat of a myth. Bermudagrass is an excellent forage choice for the southern states,” writes Lucy Ray, Morgan County extension coordinator in Grass, an extension newsletter from the University of Georgia. It’s heat tolerant, drought tolerant, and responds well to fertilizer. If managed properly, it is also highly digestible and handles overgrazing well.

Horses require consumption of about 2 percent of their body weight daily and at least 1 percent of that needs to be some type of forage. Since horses are hindgut fermenters, rather than foregut fermenters like cattle, they are more prone to digestive complications like colic.

“Fine-stemmed forages have a bad reputation based on the fact that they are more easily impacted in the animal’s gut,” Ray says. When feedstuffs become impacted in a portion of the large intestine, impaction colic can occur. Several bermudagrass varieties are known for being fine stemmed, including Russell and Alicia.

When considering hay for horses, forage quality is critical. Quality is easily measured by RFQ (Relative Forage Quality), which takes into account both total digestible nutrients (TDN) and dry matter intake (DMI). It provides a tool to compare quality across forage species. An RFQ of 100 to 120 is sufficient for an idle horse or one doing light work. Bermudagrass can meet these qualifications.

Research has shown that there is a correlation between high values of neutral detergent fiber (NDF), the total fibrous portion of forage, in hay and colic in horses. This is more likely the source of digestive issues, rather than a specific forage species. “The take-home message is that higher quality forages are not only important because they provide better nutrition but also to maintain the health of your horse's digestive tract,” Ray says.

Any species of forage can make acceptable hay for horses if it is harvested at the proper stage of maturity and put up correctly. Dry, dusty, or moldy hay can cause a respiratory condition called heaves. Also, impactions can occur if horses become dehydrated, so access to fresh, clean water is essential.

Ray notes that Tifton 85, Russell, Alicia, Coastal, and Tifton 44 are all excellent bermudagrass varieties for both pasture or hay production in Georgia. Tifton 85 is naturally coarser stemmed than the other varieties, making it a desirable choice.

Regardless of species, it is important to test forages rather than buying simply based on variety or age.

Sydney Sleep

Sydney Sleep grew up on her family’s Angus operation outside of Spearfish, S.D. She is currently attending South Dakota State University where she is pursuing a degree in agriculture communications. At college, Sleep is an ambassador for the SDSU College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, is a member of Sigma Alpha professional agricultural sorority, and works as the communications assistant for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. She is serving as the 2016 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern.