Feeding a donkey

Look after your donkey and it will look after you, says Prof Cheryl McCrindle.

Donkeys can be found all over South Africa, performing a wide variety of tasks. They pull carts carrying chairs and tables to funerals and weddings over the weekends, deliver water and transport maize to be milled. On commercial farms, they guard cattle and sheep from predators and carry salt blocks and licks to far-flung pastures. Although donkeys (Equus africanus asinus) cope and multiply in rural areas, improving their feeding will improve their welfare as well as their ability to work.

Roughage – and good digestion
The main source of feed for donkeys is coarse plant material or ‘roughage’. They eat slowly for about 14 to 16 hours a day, grazing close to the ground on wiry indigenous grasses or nipping off the leaves of thorn bushes.  Their powerful jaws with strong molar teeth and large and highly efficient hind gut allow them to digest feed that other livestock would be unable to eat. The intestinal tract of the average donkey is 24m long; the large intestines, where digestion of roughage occurs, form about 54% of this.

This slow metabolism is why donkeys survive under drought conditions. In addition, they withstand heat and desert conditions by standing still, with hanging heads, waiting for the cool of the evening. According to The Donkey Sanctuary, a donkey weighing 150kg requires about 2,3kg of dry matter intake daily (about 1,5% of body weight). For an average donkey, this amounts to about 2,5kg to 3kg of wheat straw, maize stover, thatching grass or eragrostis hay a day.

Donkeys do not do well on concentrates or rich diets. In fact, in Britain they are locked out of pastures, as the green forage makes them over-fat and results in laminitis, an inflammation of the hooves that causes severe lameness. Pet donkeys can even get life-threatening metabolic diseases if overfed. However, most donkeys in South Africa suffer from malnutrition, mainly as a result of a mineral imbalance and shortage (especially of calcium, phosphate and salt), rather than a shortage of grazing.

Salt and minerals
As donkeys can chew large chunks out of cattle licks, it is better to provide a salt and mineral lick registered for game species such as zebra. Young growing donkeys require extra protein and can be supplemented with a maize-free horse ration with a protein level of about 12%. Feed 250g/day to 500g/day from about four to 18 months of age to ensure good growth and straight legs (this is in addition to hay or roughage).

Mares in the last two months of pregnancy or with foals at foot can also receive concentrate at about the same level if they start losing condition. In South Africa, foaling usually coincides with the rainy season and supplementation is not always required. Working donkeys that pull carts or carry maize meal need a concentrate ration as well as hay to keep them in good condition, as they do not have enough time to graze, especially if confined in a stall or camp at night.

Water requirements
Donkeys, like game, can obtain water by grazing early in the morning when there is dew on the grass, and they can therefore manage without water for longer than horses. Nonetheless, they need to drink an average of 10l to 15l/ day to help them digest dry hay and roughage. Clean water should be freely available, and working donkeys must be regularly offered water during working hours, especially in summer. If deprived of water, a donkey will suck up 20l to 30l at once, and will not work again until this water has been absorbed into its system.