I'm going to write down everything that I understand about feeding donkeys, based on quite a bit of research and my own experience. I am always second guessing what to feed and how much but here's my honest understanding of the subject.
Coarse, low protein hay with low non-structural carbohydrates. If you have your hay tested, this number is referred to as NSC. Protein should be less than 9% but way lower protein (less than 5%) is okay too.
They need barley straw (oat straw is too rich and wheat straw is too long and hard to digest.) Barley straw should make up 75% of their diet in winter, according to the UK Donkey Sanctuary. Why? Because donkeys are trickle feeders like horses, and need to eat small amounts of forage frequently. If this forage is in the form of grass or hay, you are giving them too many calories and they will get too fat, which in turn has many associated health risks. Having said this, I don't feed 75% barley straw, probably closer to 40% as it's harder to come by than hay.
Also, the stomach of an equine produces hydrochloric acid which is buffered by digesting feed. If the stomach is empty, the acid can cause ulceration to the stomach lining, hence the need to eat often. But as I mentioned in a previous post, the intestine is complex, so you don't want to overwhelm the animal with a huge amount of feed to process all at once.
They need salt, either in the form of a mineral/ salt block or loose.
They need clean water (not freezing cold.) They won't drink out of murky grungy buckets!
DO NOT feed them:
Cereal grains (that's corn, oats, barley)
Sugar (that's molasses, glucose, dextrose, etc.)
Never give them a bite of your ham sandwich (animal protein can be fatal!)
Don't feed them Oreo cookies or bread or doughnuts (people do!)
If your donkey needs supplements (for example, Deenah gets Ulcerex, ground flax, vitamins and a selenium/ Vitamin E supplement every day) you can mix the powders into a soaked mash of something.
I have been using Fiber Max from Otter Co-op which is 40% beet pulp & 60% soy bean hulls. But I have just been able to get some Timothy Balance hay cubes (which have some un-molassed beet pulp mixed in) and so will switch to that.
They love brush and I offer huckleberry, a few maple branches, raspberry canes, even hemlock branches that have lots of twiggy ends. They sometimes have access to salal and Oregon grape which they will eat when they choose, roots and other sticks and twigs. On my land, I have to watch out for Ragwort, foxglove, poison hemlock, cherry trees and leaves, red elderberry and mushrooms but there are many other plants that are toxic to donkeys. It's important to know your flora and be able to identify what is either poisonous or toxic.
You can also offer carrots, cut into "fingers" not disks and apples cut into wedges but remember there are sugar and carbs in both of those so go easy.
I use treats when I am clicker training, but I go for Timothy hay pellets or broken hay cubes, the occasional horse peppermint or apple flavoured treat.
When I administer dewormer, I will squish it from the tube into a scooped out piece of apple or sometimes, I'll make a sandwich of a thinly sliced piece of bread (just this once!) slathered with dewormer paste and folded over. I just find it easier than haltering, tying and jamming the tube into the donkey's mouth but that's just me. I've never had a donkey spit it out and they think they're getting a treat rather than meds.
But honestly, try to abstain from giving them grain or sweet feed or alfalfa unless you have a sick or thin animal. Keep it as natural as possible!
Give them air and room to move but also provide shelter from rain and wind and snow. I have made plenty of mistakes. Ringo's pre-laminitic condition last summer was caused by diet - I let him get too heavy and boy was I sorry.
To do it right, really really right, we all should:
- measure the height and heart girth to estimate body weight (see the UK Donkey Sanctuary's nomogram)
- feel our donkeys all over to body score them (not just a visual guess)
- have hay and straw analyzed by a lab annually (I use A and L Canada Labs)
- figure out how much hay each donkey needs based on their weight - between 1.2 - 1.7% of their body weight = total amount of feed per day, including any grazing!
- feed small amounts of hay and straw frequently, not a big pile twice a day) or feed from a slow feeder
- do several fecal floats a year for each donkey rather than simply shove dewormer down them
Phew! ... seems like a lot to figure out but to me, feeding donkeys (and horses) is a balance between art and science - hence the lonnnng post!