Monthly Archives: October 2013

  • Why Aren't Your Hens Laying Anymore


    Written By Lisa Steele, Fresh Eggs Daily

    A decrease in egg production this time of year is perfectly normal and most likely attributable to shorter days and molting hens, but it can also be something a bit more formidable.  Egg production naturally ebbs and flows in a backyard flock. Chickens are extremely routine-oriented and any change in routine can throw off their laying.

    I keep track of the eggs I collect using a spreadsheet and totaling the eggs by color/day/month. Often, when a hen stops laying, that is the first sign that something is wrong, so tracking production is not only fun and interesting, it can be very beneficial to monitor the health of your flock.

    Here are some of the more common reasons why a hen might stop laying, or lay at a reduced rate:

    1. Shorter Days - This time of year, egg production will slow due to the shorter days. A hen needs a minimum of 14 hours of daylight to stimulate the ovaries to release an egg. Therefore it takes longer to accumulate the 14 hours during the fall and winter months.  Action - You can add supplemental light in your coop to provide the additional light needed.  Read HERE about adding supplemental light.

    2. Molting - The fall is also the time when hens will generally molt. They usually stop laying all together during the molt. Click HERE for more information about molting. Action - You have to let the molting run its course, but added protein can help move it along and help your hen emerge faster and begin laying again.

    3. Broody - When a hen 'goes broody,' she stops laying eggs and starts sitting on the nest 'round the clock, trying to hatch some eggs. Hens will do so with fertile OR non-fertile eggs, even sitting on no eggs at all! The drive for broodiness is in some hens/breeds genes more than others. Action - Break the broody as quickly as possible; read more on how to do that HERE.

    4. Egg Eating - Obviously, egg eating by your chickens will result in a reduction in the eggs left for you to collect. Once one starts, other will follow. Evidence may be seen in the nests in the form of broken eggs or empty shells, but most likely your chickens will eat the entire egg, shell and all, so unless you catch one in the act, you might not realize what is happening.  Action - Click HERE to read more on egg eating and how to stop it.

    5. Predators - Not only will many predators steal and eat eggs, the mere presence of a predator lurking around your run area can stress the hens to the point that they stop laying. Snakes, weasels and rats can get through a space smaller than 1 inch. Other larger predators, such as foxes, opossums and skunks, will try and enter your coop as well if you don't have it securely locked at night. Action - Be sure that all vents on your coop are covered with 1/2-inch hardware cloth. Block any holes in the coop larger than an inch. Put predator proof locks on the coop and nesting box doors. NiteGuard solar predator lights will also keep predators at bay and away from your run at night.

    6. Egg Bound Hen - Young hens, hens who consume too much protein or are otherwise not in tip-top condition can become egg bound. This potentially fatal condition must be caught and treated immediately. Action - Click HERE for more on treating an egg bound hen.

    7. Overcrowding - Overcrowding in the run and coop can lead to pecking and other stresses that can cause your hens to stop laying. Action - Ensure that your coop provides a MINIMUM of 3-4 square feet per hen and your run provides a MINIMUM of 10 square feet per hen. Of course, size matters and bigger is better.

    8. Additions or Subtractions to the Flock - Any time you add or take away a hen, the entire pecking order of your flock is upset and (usually minor) adjustments are made. Often this can stress hens so they slow their laying. Action - Once the pecking order is restored, laying will resume. New hens might need some time to get used to their new surroundings before they start laying for you.

    9. A Change in the Nesting Area - Any change in her nesting area can throw off a hen's laying. Things such as changing out the nesting boxes for a different type, switching the type of nesting material, hanging curtains (although, in the long run, curtains can help increase production ... click HERE for more on that!) or moving your flock to a new coop can cause stress and break their routine to cause a decrease in production. Action - Try not to disturb the nesting area unless absolutely necessary.

    10. Illness/Disease - Often the first noticeable sign of illness in a chicken will be the cessation of laying. Chickens are masters at hiding symptoms in general, because weakness can cause pecking by other hens in the flock, as well as attention from predators. Action - Do regular checkups of your flock. Read HERE what to look for and how to treat if something is wrong.

    11. Extreme Heat - Hens lay best in temperatures between roughly 50-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Any deviation, higher OR lower, can cause a reduction in their lay rate. Action - Do your best to help your hens stay cool and comfortable during the summer months, especially if you live in a Southern climate. Read HERE for tips on beating the heat.

    12. Extreme Cold - Extremely cold temperatures can likewise cause laying to decline, as the hens are using all their energy to stay warm. Action - Use scratch as an evening wintertime treat. The act of digesting the grains helps keep the hens warm overnight and maintain their laying.

    13. Lack of Adequate Ventilation in the Coop - Ammonia fumes can build up in a coop that is not well-ventilated. That can cause irritation and respiratory illness in a hen. Action - Rule of thumb is that 1/5 of your total coop wall space should be vents/windows that can be opened or closed, weather dependent. Of course be sure all vents are covered with 1/2" hardware cloth to deter predators from gaining access.

    14. Poor Nutrition - Low-quality feed, a lack of feed, or inadequate calcium or protein can all reduce egg production. Action - Ensure your flock has access to a good-quality layer feed that isn't allowed to get moldy. Provide a dish of crushed eggshells or oyster shell free choice so each hen can eat what she needs. Limit treats to 10% of their diet and choose healthy treats such as greens, weeds, sunflower seeds, nuts, grains, insects and meal worms.

    15. Overfeeding - Overfeeding can lead to a drop in egg production. A diet low in protein will cause a hens' laying to slow. Action - Don't overfeed (a hen will eat roughly 1/2 of feed per day) and provide adequate protein in the form of meal worms, sunflower seeds, etc.

    16. Lack of Water - An egg is roughly 75% water. If a chicken goes without access to fresh, clean, cool water for even a few hours, that can lead to a reduction in egg production. Action - Be sure to keep plenty of water available in the run and change it regularly. Scrub out the waterers with a white vinegar/water mix regularly and add a splash of apple cider vinegar to the water a few times a week. The apple cider vinegar not only helps keep algae and bacteria at bay, it is thought to improve the taste of the water and make it more appealing to your chickens. On hot days, add frozen water bottles or ice cubes to the water, because chickens won't drink warm water on a hot day.

    17. Free Ranging - If you allow your flock to free range, there's a good chance that they are going off to lay their eggs and hiding them. A hen's natural instinct is to lay her eggs in a secluded, safe spot to keep them safe from predators. Action - Because most hens lay their eggs in the morning hours, try keeping your flock cooped or penned up until early afternoon so they will be forced to lay their eggs when you can find them.

    18. Hiding Eggs - Even in an enclosed run, hens will sometimes quit laying in the nesting boxes and instead start hiding their eggs in an effort to collect a 'clutch' to sit on and hatch. Last summer, our egg production went down, and I thought it was the heat until I found their 'stash' of 14 eggs behind a bush in the run! Action - Chickens like to find out-of-the-way places to lay their eggs, so check under and behind bushes, shrubs, anything else you have in your run they can use as cover. Sometimes you have to learn to choose your battles, and if I find our chickens starting to lay elsewhere than the coop, I will set up an outdoor nesting box or basket for them. As long as it's out of the way and they're happy, at least I know where to check for missing eggs.

    19. Age - A hen lays best during the first two to three years of her life. Her productivity will drop after that, but well-cared for, healthy hens can continue to lay for years after that. Action - Continuing to add new chicks or pullets to your flock each spring ensures a constant supply of hens at prime egg-laying age. (Note: While older hens don't lay as well, they are thought to make better mothers, so keeping them around to sit on fertile eggs is a wonderful way for them to 'earn their keep.')

    20. Stress - A stress-free hen is a good laying hen. Any stressor, such as a barking dog, traffic noise, being bullied by another hen, neighbors' children chasing them and trying to pick them up and hold them, etc., can cause a drop in production. Action - Remember, a hen is laying her egg with the ultimate goal of it hatching into a chick. She won't be happy laying in an environment she doesn't feel is safe for a chick to grow up. Try to reduce any outside stresses as much as possible.

    Before you despair and think that getting a hen to actually lay an egg is about as rare as a blue moon or you'll have to wait until the stars align and pigs fly, remember that she is programmed to lay an egg about once every 26 hours. She WANTS to lay that egg. So anything you can do to help her in that venture is going to boost productivity and make it easier on her.  Since the hens are not living in a light/temperature-consistent, confined and controlled environment like commercially raised hens, it's natural that they will respond to different stimuli (or the lack thereof) by ceasing egg production.

  • Another Train Comin'

    Written By Jenny Pavlovic

    First here’s an update on Chase. He completed his 21 radiation therapy (RT) treatments for colonic adenocarcinoma on August 23rd. Two weeks later, he breezed through his follow up appointment with flying colors. He lost patches of hair from his back legs, but has been feeling well and doing great. On the outside, except for the hair loss, which is normal with RT, he looks fantastic. His energy and spirit are high, and he has resumed his usual activities. The next step is to do a CT scan in October to determine whether there are still active cancer cells.

    On September 24th, Chase returned to the library where kids read to him as part of the Doggone Reading program. We were excited to be there, to see Ginny the librarian and other 'old' friends, and meet new kids and listen to them read. Chase loves going to the library! He got so excited, I had to remind him to use his indoor voice. When he recognized one little girl, he did a few play bows right in front of her, and the girl said, “Look Mom, Chase is bowing!” He did this all on his own; it wasn’t a trained trick. Chase is a pro at this volunteer 'work'.

    Just when I was beginning to feel hopeful that we have derailed Chase’s cancer train, we learned that there’s another train comin’. Just a few hours after Chase’s follow up appointment, the dog sitter texted me to tell me that Bandit didn’t seem well. Urinary problems, including foamy urine and excessive thirst and urination, that we had observed over the summer had become much worse. The onset seemed much more dramatic than a normal change accompanying aging, yet test results had been normal. Bandit seemed to be feeling well that evening, but the following morning when I took him out to go tracking, for the first time in his life he did not want to work! Something was terribly wrong.

    I took Bandit to the vet that Saturday morning. His blood work and urinalysis showed some values outside of the normal range for the first time. Yet the results didn’t seem to point to any known disease. Diabetes, Cushings Disease, and other conditions had been ruled out. Eventually, more test results and sleuthing by our vet indicated that Bandit most likely has multiple myeloma. We were referred to an oncology vet (cancer vet).

    Multiple myeloma is a different kind of cancer than the colonic adenocarcinoma diagnosed in Chase. Myeloma is systemic, found in the blood and bones, not localized in one part of the body. With Chase, we have been lucky so far, that the tumor in his colorectal area does not appear to have metastasized. So his tumor could be targeted with local radiation therapy. But for Bandit, systemic treatment is needed, and the recommended treatment is chemotherapy pills. So in mid-September, Bandit started his daily chemo pills, which he will probably need indefinitely. Most dogs do well on these pills, and the mean quoted survival time is 18 months, more than what I was first told about Chase. Still, I’m hoping for more for Bandit.

    Ironically Bandit passed the Pet Partners test in August so he could substitute for Chase at the library if needed. But now Chase is feeling better and is back at the library. When the vet was checking Bandit at different times during the summer, I remember saying several times, “Just as long as it isn’t a tumor…I don’t think I could take more than one dog having cancer.” Well, here we are, trying to make the best of it. I took off my “Everyday Holds the Possibility of a Miracle” pendant that I wore every day while Chase was in RT treatment and put it on Bandit’s collar. So now these two canine brothers, related by fate and heart, but not birth, are both wearing these pendants and are sharing our hope for a miracle.

    One gorgeous September afternoon when I was enjoying some time with the dogs in the yard, a butterfly appeared. It flew around us several times and landed on a maple branch hanging over the fence. The butterfly seemed to want my attention, so I walked over and looked at it closely. It was beautiful, yellow and brown with double sets of wings, with silver blue spots on the underside. I didn’t remember ever seeing a butterfly like that before. Later I learned that it was a Great Spangled Fritillary.

    The wind was blowing the branches around and I wanted to get a better look at the butterfly. I held the branch still and even touched the butterfly gently. It seemed fine with my touch and didn’t try to leave. After a few minutes, it flew down and landed on the ground among us, and I got a better look from a different angle. The butterfly seemed to be trying to communicate something, but I wasn’t sure of its message. I just knew that the butterfly felt magical, and that it was important to enjoy that time with my dogs on such a beautiful afternoon, when we were all feeling well and having a good day.

    A few days later, still puzzling over the butterfly’s message, I looked up the butterfly totem. Here are some messages from the butterfly, compiled from several sources.

    The butterfly is a colorful, delightful symbol of transition and growth. Butterflies bring color and joy to life, and teach us that change is positive and should be embraced. Growth and transformation does not have to traumatic; it can occur gently, sweetly, and joyfully. Butterflies remind us that life is a dance, to not take things quite so seriously, and prompt us to notice the joy in our lives. They remind us to get up and move, because dance brings the sweetness of life. They are associated with aliveness and brightness.

    Butterflies are born after a period of struggle. Without the struggle the wings would not be strong enough to allow the butterfly to take wing. Butterflies prompt us to embrace change with optimism and joy for the experience, and to go through important changes and different life cycles with grace and lightness. They are symbolic of lightness of being and elevation from the heaviness of tensions. The butterfly is a powerful creature to call on when you need support in times of transition.

    The main lesson when the butterfly comes to us as a totem is that our life is about to go through a transformation of some kind. The butterfly asks us to accept the changes in our lives as casually as she does. The butterfly unquestioningly embraces the changes of her environment and her body. This unwavering acceptance of her metamorphosis is also symbolic of faith. The butterfly beckons us to keep our faith as we undergo transitions in our lives. She understands that our toiling, fretting and anger are useless against the turning tides of nature - she asks us to recognize the same. At our journey's end we are inevitably changed - not at all the same as when we started on the path. We are to make our way in faith, accept the change that comes, and emerge from our transitions as brilliantly as the butterfly.

    Lately, a solitary doe has been hanging around in the woods behind our house. The dogs, especially Chase, look for her every time they go out in the yard. Most often, she is there. So I also looked up the deer totem to understand her message.
    The deer combines soft, gentle qualities with heart energy, strength and determination. She symbolizes gentleness, the abilities to move through life and obstacles with grace, to feel the inner child, to be sensitive and intuitive, and to be vigilant and change directions quickly. She also has a magical ability to regenerate.

    The deer helps us to know life’s mysteries, and to bring gentleness and grace into every aspect of life, even in the most challenging moments. The deer inspires us to live from the heart, and handle difficult situations smoothly with a touch of gentleness and grace.

    I have often been exhausted and frustrated from managing the logistics of caring for two dogs with cancer. So the messages of the butterfly and the deer are very pertinent. I can learn a great deal from both. One of the most difficult things about dealing with cancer is not knowing where you stand. The cancers that my dogs have been diagnosed with are inside, not easily seen. While the dogs seem to be doing great on the outside, we also need to know what’s going on inside. In October, both dogs are scheduled to have CT scans, to find out the status of the cancer. Until then, I will try to take the messages of the butterfly and the deer to heart.

    Like the butterfly and the deer, my dogs encourage me to not take the situation so seriously, to get out and play and enjoy each day, because the present moment is all that we really have. Bandit and Chase are both doing well. They leap out of bed each morning, eager to run around the yard, play ball, and enjoy this present moment. On a recent gorgeous fall afternoon here, with not a cloud in the sky, we enjoyed our daily walk on the hill. All three dogs felt great and played hard, and every time I inhaled, I felt like I was breathing in hope!

    It feels so much better to live in hope than in fear. Although our life now isn’t what I expected, my fellow creatures have taught me that we can still dance and play our way along on this journey. So I try to be less of a frustrated, worried human and dance along with them, cherishing this day.

    Great nutrition has been an essential part of Bandit’s and Chase’s cancer treatments. Both dogs look great, are energetic, and have healthy coats and skin. The traditional and holistic vets agree that Omega Nuggets and Canine Shine are great supplements for Bandit as well as for Chase. Use the code JPavlovic for 20% off your first online order at www.OmegaFields.com.

  • Goat Breeding

    Written By Janice Spaulding , founder of Goat School

    As autumn approaches the words “oh the joy of heat, rut, and breeding” can be heard on goat farms everywhere!
    A doe in heat is usually quite obvious if you have a buck around! She will exhibit all sorts of different outward appearances like moaning, groaning, yelling, flagging (tail wagging) and in every sense of the word, make a general nuisance of herself. She will often head butt the other goats, jump on them like a dog, be cranky to you, and will more often than not, have a very red butt!

    Watching a buck in rut is quite comical.  They love to display their equipment, pee all over themselves, curl their lip and make lots of really unique noises. The peeing can cause blisters and sores on their noses and very red irritated looking eyes. Don’t despair, once your girls are all bred, rut will be over and the snow and rain will clean away most of the gross, caked up yucky stuff on their faces and legs. If you are really obsessive, you can give your boy a bath. Good luck with that!

    So, you have a doe in heat and a buck in rut, what now?  The estrus cycle for a doe is 18 to 21 days! Goats are pregnant for approximately 150 days.  A great thing to note here is that if you are planning on a vacation; use one of the goat breeding charts that are readily available on line to make sure your doe won’t be giving your farm sitter an unexpected gift! These charts are great for helping you “plan ahead”.

    Most bucks are extremely gentle to the doe’s. If you have one that isn’t, get rid of him! Personality, as well as “meatiness”, fine fleece, or great dairy features are important factors in your breeding program. Our “problem personalities” go to Freezer Camp (also known as, imagine a deep voice here, “THE PROCESSOR”) rather than sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

    The bucks will whisper in the girl’s ears, kiss them and mount them several times. Record this date and watch to see if the doe comes into heat again, approximately 21 days later. Another cycle can sometimes happen.  A doe is in heat anywhere from 8 to 48 hours. Every now and then you can have a doe whose heat cycle is even shorter than 8 hours and if that short period of time occurs during the night, you can miss the cycle altogether! Coincidentally, the girls who have the longest heat cycles are usually the most vocal.

    At the very beginning of the cycle your doe may not be receptive to the buck. Later in the cycle she will go into the pen, squat and pee for him, flag him like crazy and stand for him to mount her, this is called “standing heat”.

    We put the girls in several times during their cycle, because ovulation can occur anytime during that time period!
    If the doe scrunches up during penetration, don’t worry. It just means the buck has penetrated her so deeply that he hit her cervix. This is not a problem and it doesn’t affect the outcome of the breeding. Also, this doesn’t have to happen for her to be bred.

    Some bucks and does are quite fussy about who they breed AND who they are bred with!  About 22 years ago, we had someone contact us who had one Angora doe that they wanted to have bred. We took her to be bred by one of our three Angora bucks. Well, poor “Diana” was one of the ugliest goats we had ever seen! She had one horn and it was broken, a wicked over bite and she was a bit cross eyed. Her fleece had seen its better days, it was thin and straggly.

    When we put her in with the buck, he wouldn’t even go near her! She was in raging heat. We put her in with the second buck. He looked at us like we were crazy! Wouldn’t even come close enough to sniff her! What to do???

    Finally, we put her in a small pen in the barn, got our first time little buckling (named James Bond) and decided to put him to work. He couldn’t reach Diana, but he sure was willing. Ken, my husband, had to pick him up and hold him in position so the little guy could do his thing. He was successful.

    INBREEDING – LINE BREEDING – CROSS BREEDING

    Inbreeding: breeding animals that are closely related. The genetic effect of inbreeding is that it produces animals with genetic characteristics that are more fixed. Progress towards a certain “style” can be made more rapidly through inbreeding.
    While good characteristics are fixed in fewer generations by inbreeding, bad characteristics are equally fixed, so inbreeding needs to be done very carefully with the purpose of selecting desired traits and culling out undesirable ones.

    Inbreeding can and will decrease size and vigor! It has also been found to cause loss of reproductive performance. Out crossing to another breeding line needs to be done at chosen intervals.

    Inbreeding is considered crossing mother to son, father to daughter, or full sister to full brother.

    Line breeding is inbreeding where the relationship of the goats are kept as close as possible to an individual animal. For example, breeding a superior sire to his granddaughter or breeding half brother with a half sister who has the same sire.
    Advantages to line breeding are the same as in inbreeding except you double up on selected characteristics more rapidly. Be on the look out for undesirable characteristics here also, but there will be less chance of it.

    Crossbreeding or out breeding is crossing two unrelated animals that have characteristics that you want to introduce to your flock.
    This is usually done between different blood lines or different breeds of goats. This type of breeding will produce a hybrid vigor.

    Trait                    Inbreeding    Line breeding    Out breeding
    Uniformity           good             good                  fair to good
    Fertility               poor              good                  good
    Growth               poor              good                  good
    Predictability      good             good                  fair
    Overall Vigor     poor              good                  good
    Longevity          moderate      good                   good
    Uniform kids     moderate      good                   good
    Rapid growth    poor             good                   excellent
    Characteristics and How to Use Them

    There never has been, nor will there ever be a “perfect” goat. That being said, to produce the goat for show, breeding, milk, fiber, or meat, you have to aim for that perfection!

    Breeders will breed hundreds of animals just to get the “best one”.  For most, the production of gorgeous kids is just plain luck, but often they are the product of knowledgeable breeders who are aware of the body style of the dam and buck and how to achieve the characteristics of greatness.

    If you stood all of your does side by side, are they all a cookie cutter image of each other? Then Glory Halleluiah, you’d only need one buck to meet all of your needs. But, guess what? They are all different! They all look different, act different, eat different, etc. So when it comes to a buck, you have to look for a buck that will have great qualities to improve the weak points of your does.

    You want your breeding to consistently produce good qualities that add strength to your herd, not weaknesses. If you don’t consider each and every breeding as the ultimate of importance, you are not only doing yourself a disservice but also the goat industry!

    I once read that a gentleman who used to stay mostly with a particular line of Boers, would also keep a close watch on what direction his herd was taking from time to time bring in a buck that would take some of the extreme does back to the style he liked. He was said to say that when he started to get does that were “too pretty” or “too tubular”, he would need an old style buck “to ugly the does up some”!

    Some goat owners stick with the same buck, year after year and wonder why they are not producing quality anymore. A completely different buck will certainly change things up a bit!

    A breeder should be prepared to continually educate him or herself at every opportunity. Make your breeding seasons count, and take the time to learn how to evaluate each and every animal. The future of your herd does not count on the goats in your pasture, it counts on you! Do everything you can to make your next breeding a success!

    And, please, remember how important your buck/bucks are to your herd! Initially your buck represents 50% of your herd, but with subsequent use that percentage will increase greatly.  It is well to consider keeping multiple bucks of various ages to use on your does.  Diversity in breeding is important for good outcome.

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  • Strategies to Modulate Insulin Concentrations

    Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

    Much recent research in the horse industry has centered on fluctuations in insulin concentrations under a variety of conditions and the effects on the health of the horse.  Many horse owners are aware that traditional feeding practices which rely on a larger proportion of concentrate feeding may result in prolonged insulin secretion by the pancreas.  In young horses, it is thought that prolonged elevations in insulin may lead to cartilage abnormalities, promoting epiphysitis and osteochondrosis.  High starch diets are linked to behavioral issues such as more excitable or reactive horses;  and certain typing up disorders such as polysaccharide storage myopathy and recurrent exertional rhabdomylosis. Finally, high concentrate diets can certainly contribute to the development of insulin resistance and laminitis. As a result of this information, many  current horse feeds are now designed to minimize insulin fluctuations in the horse.  These feeds are typically low in traditional cereal grains such as corn and oats, may be higher in fat and fiber, or may be processed differently.   All of these techniques are designed to either minimize or slow the absorption of glucose out of the small intestine, and thus lower the need of the pancreas to secrete insulin to regulate blood glucose.  But what if switching feeds or eliminating concentrate is simply is not enough?  Are there other options available to the horse owner which can potentially help regulate insulin and glucose in their horses?
    One of the concerns for owners of insulin resistant horses is the frequent bouts of laminitis which occur if the horse is allowed access to pasture high in fructans.   Owners of these horses need to monitor their horses grazing carefully.  In order to avoid plants with high fructan content owners are advised against allowing access to pasture during the afternoon (when photosynthesis is at its peak rate), the spring, late fall or when grasses are stressed.  Further, warm season grasses offer a lower fructan concentration than cool season species of grasses and make better grazing choices for insulin resistant horses.

    But why are fructans such a concern?

    One of the theories addressing the laminitis inducing effect of high fructan content in plants is that fructans when consumed by the horse ,create changes in the bacterial population of the hindgut.  They undergo rapid fermentation, can alter pH of the gut and may result in bacterial endotoxin release.  However, this explanation does little to explain why insulin resistant horses in particular are so sensitive to fructans.  It may be that fructans trigger an increase in insulin itself that creates alterations to the vasculature of the hoof and the accompanying painful syndrome.   Insulin, while typically thought of as having a primary role in glucose disposal, has tremendous effects on the vasculature.  Insulin can act as both a vasodilator, or a vasoconstrictor.   Insulin resistance has been repeatedly been shown to cause cardiovascular dysfunction in many other species.  However, this role has not been fully explored in the equine.

    In attempt to explore this issue, researchers conducted a trial examining changes in insulin and glucose in horses allowed access to pasture during two different eight hour periods.  Horses were allowed to graze between 7 am and 3 pm or between 12:30 pm and 10:30 pm.   In this experiment, nonstructural carbohydrate content of the grass varied from 13.5% to 19.1% from 8 am to 10 pm.  The study did find a detectable, though not large, increase in insulin, in the horses fed during the afternoon grazing period when NSC values were there highest.   While the number of horses used in the study was small, and the grazing period did overlap, this study does indicate that the concentration of insulin in the horse may be sensitive to fructan content of grasses. The horses used in this study were also not insulin resistant horses.   Insulin resistant horses  may have differed in their insulinemic response to the feeding schedules.  However, this study may offer information as to why bouts of laminitis are triggered in the insulin resistant horse exposed to the wrong type of grasses.

    While we know that insulin resistant horses need to be stringently maintained on low soluble carbohydrate diets, other horses may benefit by paying attention to how we feed them.    While simply avoiding feeding grain may be an easy solution to avoiding insulin and glucose fluctuations, some horses  may require a diet higher in concentrates to meet their energy needs.  A common sense approach is to divide the horse’s meals into several smaller meals.  This is certainly an effective strategy in lowering glucose and insulin response.  However, one approach rather than running out to the barn multiple times per day to split up your horse’s meals, is to use a feeding system designed to slow down the horse’s consumption rate.  Researchers interested in this technique attempted to slow feed intake by adding grids to feed buckets, small hard balls or soaking the feed completely in water.   Using physical obstructions to feeding did prove to be successful  in increasing total feeding time, while adding water did little to alter consumption rate.  The best technique to lower insulin response was to add bocci balls to the bucket so that the horses had to move the balls around to gain access to the feed.  This idea has been elaborated to produce commercial feeding balls, which trickle out small amounts of concentrate as the horse rolls it about.  This also provides the added benefit of increasing the mental stimulation of the horse simultaneously!

    An interesting new theory is that perhaps the stress we expose our horses to may contribute to elevated insulin levels.  Chronic stress does increase cortisol concentrations which may have inhibitory effects on insulin, thus creating a greater need for insulin secretion, or in essence an insulin resistant horse.  In humans, stress and high cortisol can result in insulin resistance and a shift in the deposition of fat in the body. Perhaps stress in horses may also be contributing to insulin resistance and why we see regional adiposity in these animals.  In an initial foray into stress evaluation in horses, researchers examined whether different feeding schedules resulted in an elevation in cortisol.  However, in this study feeding schedules were not a sufficient stressor to elicit any dramatic increase in cortisol.   It is interesting that equine researchers are starting to look in new directions to solve the puzzle of insulin resistance in the horse.  While at this time, the effect of stress on cortisol and thus insulin in the horse is just a theory, maybe it wouldn’t hurt us to avoid stressing our horses unnecessarily!

    Much about insulin resistance and developing best practices still remains unknown.

    For example, in a study in which pregnant mares were fed high concentrate diets and gained rapidly in body condition in the last trimester of pregnancy, foals from the grain fed mares were actually more sensitive to insulin and had lower resting blood glucose. This does indicate that fetal programming, or the in utero environment can have long lasting effects on the offspring, but not what management protocols may be best are unknown.  While we have learned much about insulin resistance in horses, so much remains unknown. We often have to look at studies in other species and try to extrapolate this information to our management practices.  So over all, the willingness to try new methods and incorporate new information may be our best option.  Continue to monitor grazing tightly in insulin resistant horses, get creative when feeding grain, and don’t stress your horse!

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