Donkeys are often considered a low-maintenance farm animal, but many donkey owners will find that they need to adjust their feeding program. Most farmers eventually discover that donkeys cannot always eat exactly what horses or other farm animals do.
What Do Donkeys Eat?
Donkeys need a balanced diet of forage including straw, grass and hay. They can also eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as treats.
You may be surprised to learn that a donkey’s diet should be largely comprised of straw. Yes, straw!
Donkeys need a balanced diet of mainly straw along with grass or hay. Too much grass and too little straw can cause digestive and physical issues that you may not be prepared to handle.
Understanding what donkeys eat is the key to keeping your donkeys as happy and healthy as possible.
Many new donkey owners make the mistake of assuming that donkeys can simply be turned out in any pasture with other animals.
That is not always the case and it is important to learn the dietary needs of donkeys before you make this error in judgment.
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What Do Donkeys Eat?
A donkey’s digestive system works a little differently than that of horses. Food travels through a donkey’s digestive tract much more slowly, allowing them to absorb more nutrients from their food than a horse does.
This means they can make better use of less nutritional foods than horses can (source).
In the Wild
Wild donkeys have developed throughout the ages in a way that allows them to survive in dry and desert-like areas with low-quality forage.
Their digestive systems have adapted to process fibrous plant forage more effectively than other animals.
Donkeys can live mainly off of grass, shrubs and other plants found in the desert or wherever they call home (source).
Domesticated donkeys have adapted much like their wild counterparts to be able to eat fibrous plants and forage in small amounts throughout the day.
Although some donkey owners may claim their donkeys will eat practically anything, that is the exception, not the rule.
Donkeys in captivity, like horses, need a diet of forage like hay and grass but unlike horses, donkeys also need straw.
A donkey’s diet should be limited on grass but consist mostly of oat or barley straw. They can eat hay if grass is unavailable (source).
Common Forage for Donkeys
Donkeys need forage to survive. The best composition of forage for a donkey is somewhere between 5% and 10% of protein along with 5% of non-structural sugar and starches.
It should also contain between 7 to 9 kilograms of digestible energy (source).
Straw should make up the biggest part of your donkey’s daily forage. Straw consumption allows donkeys to graze throughout the day without consuming large amounts of calories.
This helps them avoid gaining too much weight or getting laminitis, a debilitating disease than can lead to lameness.
Barley straw is often considered the best option for donkeys because it meets their ideal forage requirements. It has ample amounts of fiber and low levels of sugar.
Oat straw is another acceptable option, but it is recommended mainly for older or malnourished donkeys. It contains more calories and nutrients than barley straw.
Wheat straw is another option, but it is harder to chew and is best for younger donkeys.
Donkeys can eat grass, but it should be consumed in limited quantities. Donkeys have adapted to live on small amounts of grass in nature.
Today, their bodies cannot handle high amounts of rich grass on the regular.
High-quality grass can be high in sugar and other nutrients that can wreak havoc on a donkey’s metabolic system.
Hay is a great option to supplement or replace the grass portion of a donkey’s diet.
Winter months and drought can often cause grass to be scarce, so hay can be used as a replacement.
Keep in mind, hay is not a supplement for straw. Rye, timothy, Bermuda and meadow grass hay are all acceptable types of hay to feed donkeys.
Hay should be of horse quality, meaning it should be kept indoors out of bad weather and it should not be moldy or dusty when cut open.
It does not, however, have to be rich in nutrients as a donkey’s digestive system can make use of it either way.
Do Donkeys Need Grain?
Donkeys do not need to be fed regular grain if they are given enough straw along with grass or hay to maintain their normal diet.
If basic horse grain is offered, keep it at a minimum as it has been known to cause gastric ulcers in some donkeys.
Horse-quality or donkey-specific complete feeds that are in grain or pellet form contain hay-replacing forage. Complete feeds like this can be fed in place of a donkey’s regular diet, if needed.
Senior horses that have difficulty eating normal donkey-safe forage can benefit tremendously from complete feeds (source).
How Much Grass Should Donkeys Eat?
A donkey’s access to ample grassy pastures should be limited when possible. Although it seems counterproductive, donkeys should not be put on pastures with lush, nutrient-rich grass.
When left to free range on pastures full of rich grass, donkeys can develop laminitis and possibly end up becoming lame as a result. They are also more likely to become obese and suffer from hoof-related issues (source).
Many donkey owners limit grass access to a half an hour or less every day, or every other day. They keep donkeys in a grassless area during the summer months when grass is abundant.
In the winter, they may let them free range for longer periods of time since grass is more scarce (source).
Do Donkeys Need a Mineral Supplement?
It is recommended to provide donkeys with access to a horse-quality salt block or horse-quality mineral lick.
Minerals made for other farm animals may not contain donkey-safe mineral levels. Mineral licks should include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and sulfur (source).
Can Donkeys Eat Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is not simply a different type of grass. It is a legume, meaning it is a flowering plant, much unlike grass. It is richer than grass because it is higher in protein, something that is not great for donkeys in high amounts.
If alfalfa is all that is available, it can be fed to donkeys in small amounts along with hay. Choose the alfalfa with the lowest amount of protein if that information is provided.
Alfalfa hay is beneficial for donkeys that need to gain weight for any reason (source).
How Much Should You Feed Your Donkey?
Donkeys should be fed between 1.75% and 2.25% of their daily body weight each day in dry forage including straw and hay.
If a donkey is pregnant, young, nursing its young, or is extremely active during the day, additional amounts of food will be needed.
There is no exact number to determine how much to feed a donkey, but these numbers should help you get into the ballpark.
You will need to start from there and monitor your donkey’s progress to see if the quantity of dry food needs to be adjusted or if supplemental food is needed (source).
How to Feed Donkeys
- Straw should be given in unlimited quantities. Donkeys should be able to eat straw freely throughout the day.
- Hay, like grass access, should be limited through the day. Giving hay or grass access a few times a day is better for donkeys than having free range access.
- Consult your vet if your feeding program is causing weight gain or weight loss.
List of Donkey Safe Treats
Treats should only be fed to donkeys in limited quantities. A treat given to any farm animal should never take the place of its regular diet. Treats should be cut up into small pieces to avoid choking incidents (source).
Vegetable treats, even if they are healthy, should be limited to only one or two treats each day. Carrots and turnips are great treat options for donkeys.
What Should Not be Fed to Donkeys?
There are several foods that should never be fed to donkeys. Potatoes, as well as onions, garlic and leeks should never be given to donkeys.
Silage and ragwort hay should also be avoided, the latter is extremely poisonous to donkeys and horses (source).
Donkeys need 24-hour access to fresh, clean water. Donkeys are known to be very picky about their water and may refuse to drink dirty water, which can become dangerous.
Water is vital for a donkey’s digestive system because they consume high quantities of dry food daily (source).
Can Donkeys Eat Beet Pulp?
Yes, donkeys can eat beet pulp! Beet pulp and beet pulp pellets are a by-product of the sugar beet. It is often fed to horses, cows and other farm animals as a supplement to help them gain weight.
Beet pulp is packaged dry and must be mixed with water to make it easier for animals to eat. Donkeys that are malnourished or unable to chew large amounts of forage can benefit from eating beet pulp (source).
Although some donkeys may do okay in grassy pastures with horses, most of them may suffer the effects of grass overeating at some point. Straw should always be the bulk of a donkey’s daily diet.
Hay or grass should compensate the rest. Certain treats, minerals, and supplemental foods can be fed to donkeys as needed. You should always monitor your donkeys for weight gain or signs of digestive distress.