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Home > Horses > Can Donkeys Eat Alfalfa? (Facts & FAQ)

Can Donkeys Eat Alfalfa? (Facts & FAQ)

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Among many other noteworthy traits, donkeys are renowned for their incredible hardiness. They are capable of surviving in harsh conditions—that often offer little in the way of palatable nutrition. This makes them very easy to feed in a farmyard environment that routinely has more than enough lush fodder on hand. In fact, many of these nutritionally dense feeds are actually unsuitable for donkeys.

Alfalfa is a fodder commonly found either growing in the fields or in the feed stores of most farms, as it is a nutritious feed for many farm animals including horses, cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys and more.

It would be reasonable to conclude that it would be good for donkeys too, but it may surprise you to learn that donkeys should actually not be fed alfalfa.


What is Alfalfa?

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a perennial flowering plant belonging to the legume family, known in other countries as lucerne. It is a highly valued animal feed that is used for grazing, hay, silage and in pelletized form. It is high in many vital vitamins and minerals¹, such as Vitamins K, C, B, iron, magnesium, and copper.

Alfalfa also has a significantly high crude protein content, making it a great choice for most farm animals. Yet, it is for this very same reason, that it is bad for donkeys.

We realize this may seem puzzling! Read on for the interesting explanation.

close up of an alfalfa plant
Image By: jmklatte, Pixabay

Donkeys Versus Horses

Donkeys and horses are closely related, both of them belonging to the genus Equus. However, thanks to evolutionary divergence¹, the two have become distinct breeds of their own. They continue to share some similarities, but they exhibit clear differences—one of which is their nutritional requirements.

Donkeys evolved in the hot and arid environments of Asia and Africa. These regions are characterized by sparse vegetation resulting in poor grazing and browsing. They adapted efficiently to survive in these conditions, living off of plants high in fiber and relatively low in nutrients. Another amazing adaptation they possess is the ability to recycle nitrogen (the building block of proteins) in their bodies, in contrast to horses that excrete excess nitrogen as urea.

Why Can’t Donkeys Eat Alfafa?

Although alfalfa is not toxic to donkeys, the nitrogen content in it is much too high for donkeys’ needs. Since they are unable to excrete excess nitrogen, feeding alfalfa can potentially cause them harm. The two most common consequences of feeding donkeys alfalfa are obesity and laminitis. Donkeys kept as pets are already predisposed to obesity because of their efficient nutritional physiology. So it doesn’t take much, in the way of excess spoiling, to bring about such conditions.

Obesity is a health condition that, in donkeys, can result in diseases such as hyperlipemia¹ and laminitis¹, as well as place the organs under strain. Laminitis is an excruciatingly painful disease that causes inflammation of the soft tissue in the hoof. It is difficult to treat and frequently fatal. Hyperlipemia is a disease that affects the organs and, sadly, also often results in death.

Therefore, alfalfa should not be offered to donkeys, no matter if it is grazing, hay, silage or in pellet form.

What Else Should Donkeys Not Eat?

As well as alfalfa, there are several other foods to be wary about when feeding donkeys. For example, donkeys should not be offered any feeds formulated for other animals, even horse feed, as the nutrient value makes them unsuitable. Additionally, some commercial animal feeds are treated with species-targeted medication that could make them dangerous, or even fatal, to donkeys if ingested.

Donkeys should also not be allowed access to pastures, or be given plants that have been treated with herbicides, pesticides, or rodenticides. Some of these poisons can be toxic to donkeys, and ingestion could result in organ damage or even death.

It is also best to avoid feeding them sugary treats, such as biscuits, bread, and chocolate, as well as cereal grains, such as oats and barley, as the sugar and starch content of these are too high. Vegetables like broccoli, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cauliflower, aubergine and potatoes should also be avoided, as well as stone fruits, which can pose a choking hazard.

There are several naturally occurring plants and shrubs to be aware of too.

Donkeys should not be allowed to snack on the following:
  • Oak trees
  • Black Walnut trees
  • Red Maple trees
  • Japanese Yew
  • Oleander
a miniature donkey standing in a pasture
Image By: Melody Mellinger, Shutterstock

What Should Donkeys Eat?

The good news is that donkeys thrive on low-grade fodder that is not beneficial to many other farm animals and that might otherwise go to waste. In this way, they are low-cost farmyard companions that will not be competing with other livestock for the best grazing and fodder.

Donkeys do well on high-fiber fodder, such as straw. Barley straw, in particular, is a good choice for donkeys, as it is low in sugar and closest to the kind of grazing they would have in their natural habitat. It is important to ensure that their straw is fresh, dry, and dust and mold-free.

In winter, it is acceptable to supplement their diet with hays and other forage that are higher in sugar and starch, as their metabolism speeds up to keep them warm and they will utilize the additional nutrients. However, barley straw should continue to constitute at least 50% of their diet.

Grazing of pastures can be allowed but must be carefully controlled and should form a supplementary component of their feed only, rather than the main source.

Of course, it’s impossible not to offer the occasional treat to these floppy-eared cuties, and this should be done discerningly. Donkeys love to snack on fruits and vegetables, such as apples, carrots, swedes, pears, turnips, and bananas.

Remember, they should always have clean, fresh water available 24 hours a day.

How Often Should Donkeys Be Fed?

Donkeys should have access to barley hay at all times, as they continue to graze or browse throughout the day and even parts of the night. If they are going to be offered pasture, this should only be for part of the day, whereafter they should be returned to a paddock or enclosure where they can go back to straw.

If their straw is being supplemented with grass or hay, then this can be fed 2–3 times a day.

irish donkey grazing in the grassfield
Image By: Amanda Nicole Moore, Shutterstock



Donkeys are the most efficient of the equines, in terms of their nutritional needs, and they are a wonderful complementary species to have in the farmyard—not only because they are adorable.

The bulk of their diet should comprise a high-fiber offering, such as barley straw to ensure their health, happiness, and longevity. Although alfalfa is not toxic to donkeys, and can even be acceptable in very small amounts, it is best avoided entirely to minimize the risks.

Featured Image Credit: Orest lyzhechka, Shutterstock

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