Nutritional Value of Forage After a Frost

Date of publication : 10/30/2008
Source : University of Minnesota Horse Extension
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In fall, as plants mature, they lose overall nutritional value, but at a slower rate than during the summer due to cooler temperatures and shorter days.

During the fall season, grasses gradually accumulate nonstructural carbohydrates (NCS) aboveground, especially in the basal part (lower stems/leaf bases) of the plant. NSC accumulation is a gradual process and is usually higher in more mature forage.

Quality of both legumes (i.e. alfalfa) and grasses begin to decline after a hard "killing" frost. Legume quality deteriorates more rapidly than grass quality because legumes will lose their leaves and grasses do not (leaves contribute significantly to the overall quality of both grasses and legumes).

Grasses often become more palatable (preferred) because of the elevated NSC values. As discussed in the table below, legumes (i.e. alfalfa) and grasses tend to have elevated NSC values (an indicator of starch and sugar levels) after a frost, and it is recommend that horse owners wait up to a week before resuming grazing after a killing frost in an effort to avoid some health problems (NSC values will eventually decrease over time). Also, forage protein, equine total digestible nutrients (TDN), and equine digestible energy decrease gradually after a hard frost. This decline is due to a combination of the forage plants leaching nutrients and continued plant respiration.

Bottom line:  grass species tend to retain their nutritional value longer after a killing frost (compared to legumes), and horse owner should wait up to a week before resuming grazing after a killing frost.

By Paul Peterson, PhD
University of Minnesota Horse Newsletter

Ask the Expert

Q: Is there any danger in horses grazing frosted pastures in the fall? If so, how long would you wait?

A: Some deciduous leaves can be deadly after a frost or after they have wilted due to broken branches, fall leaf shed or storm damage. Leaves of greatest concern for horses are wilted maple and prunus species, including chokecherry, ornamental almond, and cherry trees. Horse owners should identify all such seasonally toxic trees on the property, and keep horses from their fallen or frost damaged leaves for at least 30 days. Even though these leaves are not commonly eaten, horses can accidentally ingest them, especially if hungry or bored. Cyanide toxicity can also be an issue after frost.

There are no reports of toxicity of horses grazing frost damaged grass, alfalfa, or clover. However, frost damaged pasture forages can have higher concentrations of sugars, leading to an increase in potential for founder and colic. To reduce the chance of adverse health effects, it is recommend that horse owners wait up to a week before turning horses back onto a pasture after a killing frost.

                                                                                                                   By Krishona Martinson, PhD (U of M)

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