Sunday, December 18, 2011

Say Hello to Alfalfa and Science

I finally connected with my vet.  Harley's blood work indicates that he had a viral infection.  My assumptions that we had fallen to the bottom of the triage list were most likely accurate, as no medication can be given to assist the body in fighting a virus.  Fever reducers and anti-inflammatory medication (i.e. bute) can make him more comfortable as his immune system fights off the infection.  Like people coping with the common cold or the flu, it is important to drink enough fluids, keep warm, and rest to allow the body to heal and to prevent secondary bacterial infections while the immune system is taxed.  Since stopping the bute, Harley's legs are still tight, he does not have a fever, he is alert and looking back to normal.  He has his blanket at night for added warmth along with his thick hair coat.  Our nights have just started to drop to freezing; in fact, the first hard frost was the weekend of his mystery illness.  I am so, so glad that I bought him a blanket this year.  Besides keeping him warm and helping him maintain condition, having that blanket was so important for his bout with a virus.  I am thinking that I was very lucky to not have needed one until this year, as Harley has never been sick before.

Here comes the science.
If you would like to read about the alfalfa instead, you will have to scroll down...a lot.  
I hope you choose to read!

I was surprised that a couple people have asked me if the vet prescribed antibiotics for a viral infection.  I decided to mention it here, because overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics is a community health concern.  Medicinal antibiotics are typically derived from naturally occurring chemicals secreted by fungal organisms to prevent competition with bacteria for food sources (both are decomposers) or to prevent infection.  The most well known is probably still penicillin, which is produced by penicillium, a genus of fungi which are commonly recognized as including fruit and bread molds, but also include a wider range of fungal organisms.  Antibiotics specifically attack bacterial cells and have no effect on viruses, which are not classified as "living" since they require host cells to reproduce.  The body's immune system can be trained to recognize specific viruses through vaccination, but this must be prior to infection.  A "trained" immune system will recognize an invading virus and produce memory immune cells with the appropriate antibody very quickly, usually fighting the infection off before symptoms affect the host.  This can be described as "learned immunity".  The immune system is an awesome mechanism, as is vaccination.

The trouble with antibiotics stems from something called "antibiotic resistance".  As a science teacher I have realized that this is also not well understood by many people.  Antibiotic resistance is not something that the host (person, horse, dog, etc.) or the infective bacteria develop.  Antibiotic resistance is a naturally-occurring trait in a certain percentage of infective bacteria due to genetic variation.  Antibiotic resistant bacteria are always present, by chance and mutation, but the hope is that they are far outnumbered by bacteria who are susceptible to antibiotics.  When a sick animal or person receives antibiotics, the chemical helps the immune system fight off the bacteria.  The antibiotic resistant bacteria that happen to be present will not respond to the antibiotics, but will be taken down by the immune cells of the host.  Working together, the antibiotics and a healthy immune system can fight off the infection and restore health to the host.

So what is the problem?

If the antibiotics are not taken as prescribed or when necessary, the antibiotic resistant bacteria may have a chance to outnumber the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria.  For example, a doctor prescribes antibiotics for ten days.  The patient starts taking the medicine, but feels better within four days and decides to stop the medication.  This is a classic situation for antibiotic resistant bacteria to thrive.  The antibiotics were taken long enough to kill off some of the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria, but not long enough to support the immune system while it handles the resistant invaders.  By removing the antibiotic supports, the immune system may falter and a population with a high percentage of antibiotic resistant bacteria blooms in the host.  The patient feels sick again, returns to the doctor, receives more antibiotics (or starts taking the remainder of the original pack), but now the balance between resistant and susceptible bacteria has been shifted and the medicine is unable to assist the immune system effectively.  A different or stronger antibiotic will be required to fight the increased population of super bacteria which multiplied from an initial small percentage of infective organisms.  Of course, these super bacteria can be transmitted to new hosts who will suffer the same difficulty in fighting off the resistant bacteria.  The situation escalates and will be especially dangerous for weak hosts or hosts with an already-compromised immune system.  In (human) hospitals, I have heard of this situation progressing with Staph infection (Staphylococcus aureus), which is notoriously infective and dangerous.  Yikes.

The moral of the story is to always take or administer antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your doctor or veterinarian as preventative measures and to promote complete and timely recovery.  Giving antibiotics for a viral infection is setting up the conditions for an antibiotic resistant bacteria nursery, because the immune system is already tackling a viral infection and any infective bacteria which may also be present will have its susceptible bacteria killed off, creating open season for resistant bacteria to multiply as the immune cells attempt to divide their efforts. 

I love biology, by the way.  :)

Hello Alfalfa...

My vet has made a recommendation to aid Harley's condition. 

Alfalfa pellets. 

Ideally, we would like to offer him an alfalfa-mix hay, but since I do not own my own farm and I am not (even slightly) in control of the hay we receive, that is not going to happen.  Also, if Harley was eating alfalfa, his pasture mate (who is plenty round) would be eating alfalfa and that is frowned upon.  My dentist had already mentioned alfalfa cubes or pellets, as he has thoroughbreds and supplements their diet with the pellets.  He said that Harley's molars are very good and perfectly able to chew hay, but alfalfa delivers more protein for the quantity.  The hay which my barn feeds is coarse and could not be described as "rich".  While this might be fine for the majority of the horses, my vet feels that Harley would benefit from a higher quality option.  Of course, he will still receive his normal long-stemmed hay ration, since pellets do not qualify as roughage and cannot contribute to gut mobilization.  He also needs to burn hay to keep warm and mentally sound.  I have seen horses who cannot have hay.  They were not really happy and always looked at least a little frustrated, especially when the hay truck drove around and all they got was soaked cubes.  Unfortunately, sometimes this is the only management option for very old or allergic/asthmatic horses, which was the case with the animals to which I am referring.  Thankfully, Harley is perfectly capable of eating hay.  Let's hope he stays that way until he is thirty and then we can switch to cubes.

I have read a lot about alfalfa.  Alfalfa has gotten a bad rap in many circles, but seems to be perfectly fine for feet and temperament, although expensive.  My barn owners are concerned that Harley will get hot on alfalfa.  I have read that if a horse becomes hot on alfalfa, he is probably allergic.  My vet was not concerned about allergies being a risk or hotness.  Harley is not exactly climbing the walls, so if he did gain some pep, I would not be upset about that.  After his body recovers from the virus, he will be redrawn for a full allergy panel, so we will know if Harley has allergies to hay, dust, mold, or anything else.

Do you have any thoughts on the effects of alfalfa on temperament?


  1. I did a mini clinic at my trainer's farm last year. She was feeding straight alfalfa at the time. I had brought Val's hay from home, and was concerned about him getting extra excited, but when he saw / smelled the hay cart go by with alfalfa he gave me such a look - at me, at his second class manger offerings, at the hay cart... "What am I, chopped liver?!"

    So I fed the alfalfa, which he r-e-a-l-l-y loves. No hotness problems at all. He did have loose poop for a day or so, that was the only ill effect I noticed. I may look into the alfalfa cubes myself. :)

    Thank you for talking about the antibiotic issue. My small community has had several mersa outbreaks, attributed to incomplete antibiotic usage (finish the darn prescription please!) as well as the prevailing over-prescription for things other than bacterial infections.

    I can understand the ignorance of the patients regarding how antibiotics work, but why are the physicians writing the prescriptions?

  2. Thanks for anecdote, Calm, Forward, Straight. Glad to hear that alfalfa worked for Val. Harley tasted straight alfalfa once, too, also at a clinic. There was some in his rented stall, so I just let him eat it. It was. so. green. Any clinic nerves were forgotten over that hay. I imagine that he was like "when can we come back?"

  3. Val - glad to hear it's "only" a virus. Hopefully Harley can kick its butt and get rid of it completely! I am not a fan of antibiotics for many of the reasons you discussed. Commonly over-prescibed and taken incorrectly. When necessary, they're great, and I am glad they're around when needed.

    About the alfalfa ... here in the west, it's the cheapest and most consistent feed available. Most horses here eat it exclusively. Yes, MANY people have problems with it (high calcium, enteroliths, etc.), but the fact of the matter is that MANY, MANY horses eat it exclusively and have no problems. That doesn't mean it's the BEST feed, but it's also not a bad feed.

    I have fed alfalfa my entire life and have NEVEER had a horse be "hot" from its consumption. I am not saying it doesn't happen, but by and large, California's horses cope quite well with it. Many people also feed cubes that are an alfalfa/oat blend. It can be hard to get all year though, and as you know switching feed can cause digestive stress.

    Alfalfa DOES help keep our horses warmer because it generates heat during the digestive process. Our last few weeks have been unseasonably cool (lows between 29 - 33) so our ponies are getting extra hay each day to help combat the cold.

    We feed each horse in our barn a minimum of 20 pounds of alfalfa each day. We even measure it with a hanging scale! We vary the amount slightly depending on the horse. Speedy gets a tad less as he's smaller, but our other three boys get more as they are larger. My two boys also get several pounds of soaked beet pulp and stabilized rice bran (a fat source) each day. Nobody in our barn is "fat," and none of them have ribs showing.

    It "seems" that most easterners have a bias toward alfalfa that you do not see here in the west. I have found this resistance to be quite interesting as it definitely comes from historical regional practices. I am quite certain that here in the west we are also resistant to practices that are common place in the east. This is why blogging is such a great tool for communication and education.

    Good luck with your feed considerations! And well wishes to Harley.


  4. Its funny that alfalfa is expensive out your way. Here in California it is the cheapest feed available so a lot of people feed it. We feed grass hay because our horses get fat on alfalfa and our vet feels straight alfalfa is too much protein. But mixing them, particularly when a horse is in work, is a good thing. We have used it for weight maintenance in older horses. It does have a "hot" reputation but I've never noticed a huge difference.
    I'm with you on the virus thing. It drives me nuts when people demand antibiotics for a virus.

  5. Thanks for all the information, Karen. I appreciate the western perspective. I think that I am dealing with a regional bias, although I am not sure of the origin. My vet and my dentist did not seem to share the bias and are pro-alfalfa, although they both own thoroughbreds. So maybe we are looking at a breed-based food bias? I really have no idea.

    I thought alfalfa was more expensive on the west coast. Thanks for setting me straight. I was surprised to hear that this was not true.

    Oh and if Harley was in a management situation where he could have 20 pounds of alfalfa every day, I think that I would shed enormous tears of happiness and dance the happy-happy, joy-joy dance up and down the barn aisle. That sounds FABULOUS!!!!!!!!!

  6. Hi Annette-
    I was just writing in Karen's comment that I thought alfalfa was more expensive out your way. Given the struggle to find affordable hay in my area, I guess that I am on the more expensive end of the hay world. Since I am not responsible for ordering it, I am not totally clear on how much it costs, just that it is a constant management "thorn". An alfalfa mix would be wonderful.

    I felt that the antibiotic reistance lesson was worth a public service announcement.

  7. I had a mare who turned into a wild thing if she was fed alfalfa--even her skin would twitch. I could get away with feeding her half alfalfa, but only in the dead cold of winter, and I fed her half alfalfa when she was pregnant. I think how they react must be partially, some horses are easy keepers and have plenty of natural energy. Others need a little help.

    A lot of people where I live switch over to straight alfalfa hay during the winter months, but most people feed "bloomed out" alfalfa (it's been allowed to bloom before cutting) so it's not quite so rich. If a horse is going to get "hot" on alfalfa, it's usually pretty dramatic, and happens within a couple of hours of feeding. You might buy a bale on your own and experiment to see what happens.

    The one benefit from coarse hay is that it's really good at keeping them warm in the wintertime--the gut action generates a lot of heat for them.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Fetlock. If you check back here, what breed was your mare?

    The coarse hay is basically all cellulose (plant cell walls) which requires gut bacteria to break it down, hence the prolonged heat generation. This is good, as you mentioned, and I have read that alfalfa does not have as much fiber as grass hays.

    My vet was telling me a story about horses that were starving with hay in front of them, because they were not getting anything from it except cellulose. For this reason, complete feeds and/or forage substitutes are often fed with hay to compensate for nutritional inadequacies.

  9. I don't think you can do enough PSAs about antibiotic resistance.. I know people who will keep old antibiotics on hand and pop a few if they start feeling under the weather -- or do the same for their horse if they think the horse is not feeling well. It makes my skin crawl!

    I have a giant bottle of SMZs in my first aid kit leftover from when Willie kept getting cut up by the bad fencing at our old barn... But I would always double-check with the vets before treating him!

    I have both of my boys on alfalfa pellets, because I like giving them a little but I don't have enough space to store two kinds of hay. Also, I soak the pellets to make a "mash" for their dinner, both to get them a little extra water and to give their powdered supplements something to stick to. Neither one gets hot on it; I thought Jabby did at first, but he's been on them since the summer and has been doing just fine.

    I use the Standlee brand available at TSC -- very consistent quality and it always smells like fresh, yummy hay! I use pellets instead of cubes because they soak a little bit faster, and take up slightly less space. I can squeeze three bags into my metal storage can instead of two!

  10. Val - what kind of hay does your barn feed, and how much? The blogging world has opened up the east coast to me. I love, love, love reading about how you all do things on our other coast. Many west coast horse owners subscribe to the "keep it simple plan." Free choice (or nearly so) alfalfa, oat if you can get it, and maybe an orchard grass if it's available.

    I live in an area with quite a few dairies so alfalfa is plentiful. We get a later cutting as the first couple can be way too high in protein for horses. By the third cutting, it's usually considered safe for equines. Many people do feed supplemental feed, but alfalfa tends to be the bulk of the horses' diets.

    Please share more about a typical feeding regimen in your area.


  11. Well hello Val!!
    I have been away from bloggin of late and am attenpting to catch up!

    Look into Springtime Inc. Products..they are TOP OF THE LINE and many have anti-viral qualities. Lots for breathing and ulcers too..all NATURAL and made by them, with the testing science studies available to you, the consumer.

    I feed my mare the "Air Dried" Galic(Spingtime Inc.). It is an ummune booster for human and horse. (not to be confused with Freeze Dried studies, that cause Anemia) Also,Stabalised Flax Bran is anti bactieral and viral too.

    As for the Alalfa. My sister has done exstensive reading and has gotten many of the facilites she has trained and run- OFF Alfalfa products. The "Legume" is very high in Protein and can tax the hind gut, using far more liquid to digest. The stall will be much wetter for they P out most of the Protein.Very high in Calcium and should def be tested against all else given, making sure the Phosporus balance is noted. Most horses only eat the leaves as the stalks are so coarse,maybe that is why there is less fiber?

    The Orchard Grass hay I feed is high in Calcium,( we had it tested for nutrition values) easily balanced by 2 C oats and I C rice bran. All the horses are well porportioned at my stable with the Orchard grass hay. My mare has never had the candy like Alfala. All vets seem to recommend it. Must be the Old school lessions they learned.

    I am not a big fan of pellets either, again my sister has influecned me against them, for how they are made and the choke/anti digestion that sometimes occurs.
    I prefer feeding palatable (grain)feeds..ones that break down easily with saliva/moisture, and not chewing. Having a TB I choose low glycemic feeds. I used to feed Milk Pellets for Calcium/Protein.

    My mare has Never had the candy like Alfalfa, I have no need for the stuff..though all vets usually will recommend it. Basic old school training.

    The Lunge Cavason I have is leather and has far too many options I don't use for a bit attachment. My sister got it and asked for her Nicer one I have thins one. I just looked in Dover Catalog and the 3 they have now, look good. One is Nylon and is the cheapest, though I prefer leather.Padded nose peice, 3 rings,3 hinge. All in Dover are under $ 90.
    Hope you find one you like. They are good about exchanges.

    YOU have a loverly Christmastime Val!!

  12. Now That's A Trot- Antibiotic misuse is very alarming. Just trying to do my part.

    Harley's pellets will also be soaked, along with the rest of his food. Thanks for the info. about your guys' temperaments on alfalfa.

    Karen- I do not know if my barn is typical, but free choice hay is not offered. The hay is kind of on lock down and the horses receive two to three flakes with each meal. I pay extra for Harley to get double at night (which he shares with his paddock buddy). This summer the barn owners started giving the horses a flake in between breakfast and dinner, which I celebrated. I wish that I could tell you what kind of hay we have, but the truth is that I do not know. I asked the barn owners and they said that they did not know either. It looks like a grass hay mix (somewhat green with lots of stems). The vet inspected it and came to this conclusion. My ideal is free-choice hay. I know of a barn that offers it, but it is so far away that I would never see my horse. Boarding is very difficult. I have a lot of good things where I am, but no setup is perfect. Can you hear my frustration?

  13. Hi KK- Thanks for the cavesson info. I have always wanted a nice leather one so that I can clip the line in the center of his nose for support, but the one I like is way too much money. I haven't checked Dover in a while, so maybe I should check back.

    The dentist suggested pellets, because horses are more likely to choke with inadequately soaked cubes than pellets. I have to keep ease of administration in mind, since I board and am asking a lot of the barn owners already. My horse is like the "high maintenance one" of the bunch. His entire dinner is soaked (beet pulp, pelleted grain, alfalfa pellets), and he is the slowest eater on the planet, but I understand what you are saying. The ideal would be an alfalfa mix long-stem hay that he could eat freely. He will not be eating large quantities of alfalfa pellets. Hopefully, moderation will accommodate some the the mineral and protein concerns which you mentioned. Maybe I will have the vet run a blood test in the spring to check his levels.

    I will check out Springtime, Inc. Thanks for the recommendation and the comment. Merry Christmas!

  14. I always love to get a science lesson from you. I've always thought that when Doctors prescribe antibiotics, they really should have a serious face to face with the patient to really make sure they understand how important it is to finish the medication. Like you said, once a person starts feeling better, they stop taking it, so important to finish the regimen.

    It seems the alfalfa issue is quite a hot button. I cannot chime in on that one. I know that whatever you give Harley, you will notice right away whether it is working for him or not. This I am sure of.

  15. I had a TB mare who because dangerously crazy on alfalfa. But I currently feed the alfalfa pellets (because I am allergic to the hay and break out in hives from touching the loose alfalfa - and I don't have to touch the pellets, just use a scoop) to all of my animals and see no ill-effects.

    My hot-tempered welsh mare loooves them and is not any hotter for eating the alfalfa, and my yearling is his same easy-going self. The goats need it for increased milk production :) which is the main reason we added this to our feeding routine.

  16. Thanks, Mary! I think that you are right about alfalfa. It is a good topic for discussion. I am certainly learning a lot!

    HammersArk- Thank you for sharing your varied experiences with alfalfa. It must be very difficult to deal with a hay allergy and care for so many animals. The pellets are a great solution. I am glad that the "craziness" was only seen in one instance. I wonder if your mare was allergic, too?

  17. I will definitely be back to read this post. I love reading about this stuff, but wanted to respond to your comment on my blog.

    I really appreciate your advice about the bareback pad with stirrups. I had heard some people say they didn't like them, but didn't really know why, so it's nice to finally have an explanation.

    I am definitely getting a treeless saddle. I've been wanting one for almost a year now, but I just can't afford it right now because my husband got hurt and lost his job. I am trying to put a little money back each paycheck to save for one, but it will be a little while. I've been doing some research on what kind I want, but I'm afraid to look at available saddles for sale because I'll be sad if I find a good deal and can't afford to get it lol. :)

    I agree with you about the rising trot on a young horse, so I'll wait to trot him until I can get a saddle. I don't want to do anything to discourage him from using his back. It's such a pain teaching them to stop bracing once they learn to do it, so I'm trying to avoid it altogether.

    Thank you so much for you comment. I really appreciate the compliments and advice. I know I'm probably a little OCD about all of this, but I want to do everything the right way with Chrome. :) I know we will both make mistakes, but I hope to avoid the big ones by researching and educating myself on each little thing. :D Chrome has taught me so much already even though I've been around horses my whole life and I look forward to continuing to learn from each other. Thanks again and sorry for rambling!

  18. achieve1dream- You are very welcome! I share the same sentiments regarding learning from the horse and arming oneself with education in the hopes of supporting a successful training adventure. Thanks for stopping by and for the lovely comment. :)

  19. Hey,

    I'm not so far from you- in New York's Hudson Valley- and it's been a bad year for hay here.

    With all of the flooding and whatnot this summer, most of the hay in our area is kaput- farmers didn't get a second cutting in. (Last year I was able to stock up on second cutting for the winter, but this year they're charging $2 more per bale, making it $8 per bale for second cut now).

    I've been buying hay for our small place for about two years now, and at least here in New York, Alfalfa isn't as common- we get occasional mixes, but it's not something you could easily find to feed regularly. I'm not sure where in Jersey you are, but our family in south Jersey has had similar woes this year. Most of the barns I work with in my area are complaining of similar issues- one barn owner had a truckload of hay shipped from the Canadian border, just to try and get in enough hay before we're snowed in.

    Erm, I'm rambling now. In any case, it's been a bad year for hay, which means that a lot of folks here in the NE are dealing with lower quality hay at higher prices, which might be why your barn owners are a bit stingy.

    Depending where your barn owners get their hay from, you might be able to request that they get a few bales of second cut for Harley in their next load- it'll be nicer stuff, a bit smoother and greener, and might help bulk him up a bit more- and it's often the best you can get at a reasonable rate.

    Good luck with Harley, and getting his health back all the way.


    PS- thanks for the antibiotics PSA :-)

  20. N- I am glad that you commented, since we are most likely working with the same hay situation. I am not sure where we got our last shipment of hay, but they made room to squirrel away almost 600 bales. This is very unusual for our small farm, so I can imagine that it was a worthwhile move economically.

    I did get the vibe that alfalfa hay was out of reach due to price and availability.

    Thank you for the advice about the second cutting. I will definitely ask about that. You never know unless you ask, right?


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