Whoever authored the expression, “healthy as a horse” clearly never met a donkey. Horses quickly get sick from changes in diet. The most common killer is colic. Donkeys can live on a diet that would sicken a horse. But even though donkeys are so tough, they still need a healthy diet based on hay in order to thrive and not just survive.
Hay is for horses – and for donkeys. Donkeys generally not need as much hay as a horse, but do need the highest possible quality hay their owners can afford. Donkeys eat grass-based hays such as timothy, brome, tall fescue or coastal Bermuda. Avoid feeding alfalfa hay as this can quickly make a donkey fat or sick, according to Sue Weaver, author of The Donkey Companion (Storey Publishing; 2012.)
Hay needs to smell pleasing and be free of mold. Never feed moldy or discolored hay. Open up a few bales to see the center where rot first starts. Never feed bales that seem much heavier than usual. These heavy bales have picked up moisture and are rotting. Baled hay and bagged hay are better than silage because large round silage bales can harbor dead rodents and botulism.
How much hay should you feed a donkey? This depends on the donkey’s healthy weight. The general formula is: Weight of donkey X 1.5%. So, if a donkey weighs 500 pounds and is healthy, the donkey should be fed 7.5 pounds of hay per day. Break this amount of hay into two or three feedings spread throughout the day.
What About Concentrated Food?
Donkeys usually do not need to eat pellets for horses, “sweet feed” or concentrated food unless they are nursing, breeding or working hard. Donkeys love this rich food but it is far too calorie-rich for them. If donkeys are kept with sheep, they will eat the sheep’s feed. Keep the sheep on the donkey’s diet. Sheep feed often contains a coccidiosant called Rumensin.
Donkeys are especially sensitive to cattle feed and cattle licks containing urea. Although cattle can consume large quantities of urea, it takes a small amount to kill a donkey. Make sure donkeys cannot get into cattle food. Donkeys also should not be fed dog or cat food. Donkeys will eat it, but meat will make a donkey very sick.
Other Feeding Tips
Donkeys can digest a wide variety of plants and will soon strip a pasture bare. Donkeys do not instinctively know what plants are poisonous, such as bracken, hemlock, horsetail, ivy, privet and ragwort. Pastures need to be inspected for poisonous plants before allowing donkeys to graze there.
Leave water available for donkeys to drink from. Donkeys may be messy eaters, so check water buckets or troughs at least once a day for dunked hay. Switch food gradually so it does not cause colic or other ailments.