Most of the country has experienced wetter than normal conditions this year, resulting in a very poor growing season for many farmers. It’s still difficult to tell how this will have affected this year’s straw and hay production, but it is highly likely that we will continue to experience increases in forage prices and difficulty in sourcing good quality barley straw and meadow hay. Therefore it would be a good idea to start thinking about winter forage supplies ahead of time to make sure you don’t get caught out later in the year. If storage on site isn’t an option, you can still think about their winter supplies as there are some things you can do to plan ahead and help alleviate any shortages. Getting together with other donkey owners in the same area to buy in bulk and store the straw at a neighbour’s premises will make sourcing easier and prices more competitive. Keep in regular contact with and build up a relationship with your straw supplier, emphasizing that you use straw for feeding as well as bedding. If the worst case scenario does happen and you are unable to source barley straw for your donkeys then you could think about feeding wheat straw, but only if your donkyes have good teeth as wheat straw is tougher than barley. Or you could feed oat straw, but with caution with fat donkeys as it is higher in calories than barley or wheat straw.
However, if you are unable to source any straw at all there are some fibre products available on the market that are suitable for donkeys, although in a serious forage crisis these are likely to increase significantly in price as the manufacturers themselves will be struggling to find the raw materials for their products. In the event of a shortage planning ahead really is the key so that you aren’t changing diets drastically. These alternative sources would be best used to stretch out an existing straw or hay supply rather than switching over once you’ve run out.
The most appropriate alternative fibre products include Horsehage’s High Fibre Haylage, Horsehage’s MolliChaff Donkey and Saracen’s Slimchaff. MolliChaff Donkey and Slimchaff are short chop chaff products which have been designed in conjunction with The Donkey Sanctuary, both are laminitic safe and can be used as either a top up or a complete forage replacer if necessary. However, most donkeys will be able to eat a lot more chaff in a short period of time compared to the long fibres in straw/hay/haylage so these products can’t be fed truly ad lib. The High Fibre Haylage is another good alternative as it has been made from low fructan grasses and the fermentation process will also have broken down the sugars in the grass to make this a low sugar, high fibre, laminitic safe haylage. This haylage is made under strict control procedures to ensure that the nutrient levels are consistent batch to batch which is why we are happy to recommend this as opposed to farmer’s haylage which can be wildly variable in nutrient content and often unsuitable for feeding to donkeys.
There are other short chop products on the market which could also be used for donkeys, but be aware that those containing alfalfa can be quite tough and stalky therefore harder for older donkeys to chew. Some of these chops may also contain a higher level of molasses than is desirable making them high enough in calories for donkeys that they will put weight on if this is the main source of food. Not all short chops are suitable as a sole diet, those which are not marketed as a complete feed need to be fed with good quality vitamin/mineral supplement.
Other fibre based products which can also be used to bulk out a diet include high fibre nuts and un-molassed sugar beet, we really only recommend Spiller’s High Fibre Cubes, or Saracen’s Donkey Diet as these have undergone extensive trialling at The Donkey Sanctuary and we are happy that they can be fed safely to any donkey either dry or damped down. We would recommend British Horse Feed’s Speedi-Beet as this is a quick soak, un-molassed sugar beet. Again as with the chops, beet and nuts are going to be eaten very quickly by most donkeys so be aware that if the donkeys in question don’t need to put on weight, then they can eat the amount required for maintenance in quite a short space of time and may be left bored and feeling like they still want to eat and chew!
The average donkey needs to eat between 2 and 3 kg of dry feed per day to maintain their weight. Under normal circumstances this would be made up by a mix of 75% straw and 25% hay/haylage/grazing in the spring/summer/autumn, or 50:50 in the winter. If the straw and/or hay portion of the diet needs to be supplemented with alternatives it’s important to assess carefully how this is done, ensuring that the donkeys are still getting enough fibre throughout the whole 24 hour period to keep their digestive systems healthy. This may mean putting out smaller portions throughout the day and evening rather than only once or twice a day to avoid them standing around, and offering logs or making browsing areas available so that they can fulfil their need to chew on objects other than fencing.
We have had some queries about feeding rye and rice straw but we haven’t got any experience of these ourselves so it’s hard to comment on their suitability other than rye straw being potentially dangerous when fed to pregnant mares. One product that should never be fallen back on to add bulk is bran (due to poor calcium:phosphorus). There are also other fibre by-products out there which may be used for cattle feed, but these should never be considered for donkeys unless all other options have failed, in which case please ring in on 01395 578222 or email the Nutrition team on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Donkey Sanctuary does not endorse any individual food or manufacturer. The information provided in this article is intended as a guide to allow donkey owners to research the most suitable product for their own situation.