Dr Nerida McGilchrist PhD
It is a widely held myth in the horse industry that lucerne is unsafe for laminitics. But the myth couldn’t be further from the truth. Lucerne is valuable in the diet of laminitics AND it is one of the safest forages we can feed to these sensitive equines.
Here is why…
Aussie research back in the mid 2000’s showed that it was abnormally elevated levels of insulin circulating in the blood that triggers painful laminitis in horses and ponies.
On the back of this research we now understand that the key to safely managing a laminitic is to keep their blood insulin as low as possible.
To do this, we need to carefully control the amount of non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) being fed in a laminitics diet because it is the starch and sugars in the diet that will trigger a post feeding insulin response.
When considering safe forages for laminitics, we need to be looking for forage with less than 10% – 12% NSC (calculates as starch + WSC; water soluble carbohydrates)
Lucerne is Naturally & Consistently Low in NSC
Being a legume, lucerne is limited by its own physiology to be naturally and consistently low in NSC.
Dairy One’s Feed Library shows that the average NSC content of lucerne cubes tested between 2004 and 2022 is 9.5% on a dry matter basis with the highest level tested coming in at 11.9%
Lucerne = SAFE for Laminitics
The low NSC content of lucerne means it won’t trigger dangerously elevated post feeding insulin levels. Making it safe to feed to laminitics.
I have come across only a tiny handful of laminitics in 20 years who didn’t cope with lucerne in their diet. So as with all new additions to your laminitic’s diet, introduce lucerne slowly and monitor their individual response closely.
Plus there is more!
Not only is lucerne safe to feed to laminitics, but it also provides loads of other nutritional benefits including:
Quality Protein – because laminitics are often on very restricted diets they can experience a deficiency of high quality protein which can lead to issues with slow hoof growth, ulceration in the gut and loss of muscle mass. Lucerne brings quality protein into a diet to support hoof, gut and muscle health.
Fibre Variety – we are starting to understand that one of the most important aspects of a horse’s diet is forage variety. Forage variety creates hindgut bacterial diversity. Which in turn creates hindgut resilience. This hindgut resilience reduces the risk of diseases like colic, supports the immune system and keeps horses generally healthier. And happier. Using lucerne in what are often very ‘restricted’ diets for laminitics increases fibre diversity and will have a positive impact on overall health and welfare.
Nutrient Rich – the bulk of a laminitic’s diet is often restricted to low energy, often poor quality forages that are low in essential nutrients. By contrast, lucerne is rich in minerals, vitamins and essential amino acids and will help to meet the daily nutrient requirements of laminitics.
A Valuable Part of the Diet
I consider lucerne as being an enormously valuable part of a laminitics diet. It is safe and it provides fibres and nutrients that will support a laminitics overall health and welfare.
Lucerne does need to be fed in moderation and should always be fed with other low NSC forages like teff as part of a balanced diet.