Fibrous feeds are essential for horses. When developing feeding regimens promoting health and performance, we need to understand the digestion of plant cell walls and the functioning of the hindgut microbial ecosystem. Our objective was to investigate the effect of grass fibre maturity and legume forage on the hindgut microbiota and its activity. Six caecum and colon fistulated geldings were fed three diets differing in fibre composition: concentrate and late harvested grass haylage (35:65 energy ratio) (C); early and late harvested grass haylage (80:20) (G); lucerne and late harvested grass haylage (80:20) (L) for 28 days in a Latin-square design. No differences were measured in total bacteria concentrations, fungi and protozoa numbers nor in cellulolytic bacteria concentrations between the diets. Short-chain fatty acid concentrations did not differ between diets, but a lower (acetate + butyrate)/propionate ratio when the horses were fed Diet C, compared to G and L, was observed, suggesting lower fibrolytic and higher amylolytic activity. The pH increased when the horses were fed Diet L and decreased when fed C and G from caecum to faeces. The buffering capacity (BC) of hindgut digesta was five to fifteen-fold higher than that of the feeds, suggesting a decreased effect of feed BC as digesta travelled through the digestive tract. In conclusion, an early harvested forage opens up the possibility for forage-only diets, providing high energy without the negative effects of concentrate.
Keywords: digestion; forage fibre; grass; hindgut microbiota; lucerne.