Stop by the barn in early evening and listen to the sound of contented munching as your horse tucks into his hay. That hay is not just a side to the entree in his grain bucket. It is (or should be) the basis of his diet. In this article you’ll find out all you need to know to make sure your horse gets the most from it–the key differences in types of hay, how to judge hay quality and tips for feeding and buying hay.
What makes hay so important to your horse? Hay provides a good balance of calories and nutrition, and it helps keep his digestive system in good working order.
The complex carbohydrates in hay and other forages (such as pasture) are the main source of calories for horses, and the safest. Grains provide calories in the form of sugars and starches, which are great fuels for performance but at high levels are associated with colic and laminitis.
Hay, especially good-quality hay, delivers lots of other nutrients your horse needs, including protein, vitamins and minerals.
The long-stemmed fiber in hay helps keep your horse’s gut working properly–after all, horses evolved to eat forage. The fiber actually holds water as it moves through the gut, reducing the risk of a blockage (impaction).
Munching hay also satisfies your horse’s need to chew and helps stave off boredom.
Hay’s benefits vary greatly, though, depending on the variety and other factors we’ll cover below.
Three types of plants are used to make horse hay:
- Grasses. Grass hays differ by region, depending on what grows best in the area. Cool-season grasses include orchard grass, timothy, tall fescue, reed canary grass, bromegrass and prairie grass. Bermuda grass is the most common warm-season grass in horse hay, but bahia grass is an alternative in some regions.
- Legumes. Alfalfa and clover are the most common legumes in hay. Lespedeza, birdsfoot trefoil and peanut and soybean plants (not the beans) may also be used. Most legume hay has more calories and significantly more protein and calcium than either grass or small-grain hay–often more than the average horse needs. Grass-legume mixes (such as timothy-alfalfa) are often fed to horses.
- Small grains. Grain plants commonly harvested as horse hay include oat, pearl millet and teff, a plant relatively new to the United States. Small-grain hay, especially oat hay, is typically lower in potassium than grass or legume hays.
The type of hay horses get often -depends mainly on what’s available in the area. You’ll find bermuda grass throughout the South, bromegrass in the Midwest and timothy in the East. Alfalfa is grown everywhere but especially on the West Coast. Switching hay type abruptly may be risky for horses with a history of colic, so it’s smart to gradually mix in the new hay with the old over a couple of weeks. It makes particular sense to introduce alfalfa hay gradually, because an abrupt switch from purely grass hay to alfalfa often seems to temporarily cause loose manure.
Nutrient levels in all types depend partly on soil and partly on when and how the hay was cut and cured. Hay cut when plants are mature tends to be less digestible and provides less nutrition than hay cut before plants reach that stage. Hay that’s baled at the proper moisture content (so it doesn’t heat up or develop mold) and stored properly (under cover, in a barn or shed with adequate ventilation) holds most of its nutrients for a long time. But vitamin content drops quickly. Vitamin E and beta carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) are both unstable when exposed to light, so the vitamin content of new sun-cured hay is generally one-tenth or less than that of fresh pasture. With storage, more vitamin content is lost; hardly any is left in year-old hay.
Is it Good?
Whatever hay you feed, get the best quality you can. Break open a bale and examine it. Good hay should be
- sweet smelling, like mown grass. A musty odor suggests the hay was baled when its moisture content was too high, and mold is starting to grow.
- soft. If you wad it up in your hand, hay should feel more pliable than brittle; if it’s tough, it’ll take the horse longer to eat, and he may get less nutrition from it.
- leafy. Look for a high ratio of leaves to stems. Lots of large seed heads in grass hay and lots of flower heads and coarse stems in alfalfa show that the hay was cut from mature plants and may be less digestible, nutritious and tasty.
- clean. Hay should be free of dirt, trash, insects and excessive dust -(another sign of mold). A few weeds baled up with the hay won’t generally cause problems, but you should not see large numbers.
- natural in color. A strong green color indicates high levels of vitamin A, but color otherwise isn’t a very reliable measure of nutritional value–pale greenish-gold is fine, and sun-bleaching on the outside of the bale is also OK. But dark-brown hay may be rain–damaged or moldy.
Looking, touching and smelling will give you clues to hay quality, but it won’t tell you much about the nutritional value. The only way to know if the hay will meet your horse’s needs is to have a sample analyzed, and that’s easy to do. Every state has a cooperative extension service or land-grant university that can analyze hay for basic nutrient content, generally for less than $30. It makes sense to test if you buy hay by the ton. If you buy by the bale, ask your suppliers if they test and if you can see the results.
Get answers to some other quality questions before you buy, too. Ask the supplier:
- Did you grow the hay yourself, or do you do business regularly with the grower? The grower will know best how the hay was grown, harvested and cured.
- Was the hay field fertilized? Fertilized fields usually produce better yields and more nutritious hay.
- At what stage of maturity was it cut? Vegetative or pre-bloom stage is more nutritious than full bloom or mature.
- What cutting is it? The first cutting of the season often contains more weeds, but keep in mind that second or third cuttings can have issues if there’s excessive rain or drought.
- When was it harvested, and how has it been stored? Long storage may mean lower vitamin levels. Hay exposed to rain or ground moisture will mold, so it should be kept under a roof and on pallets or a gravel pad.
If you’re buying alfalfa hay, ask if it’s guaranteed free of blister beetles. These beetles, which contain a chemical toxic to horses, can infest alfalfa fields (most often in dry regions) and be crushed and baled up with hay.
How Much Should He Get?
The usual recommendation is somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of his body weight per day, or 10 to 20 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse. An average horse should get closer to 2 percent if his diet is mostly hay. Most horses won’t consume more than 2Â½ percent of body weight in hay alone per day.
When a horse’s needs outstrip what his hay provides, he needs a grain concentrate. That’s likely to be the case if –
- he’s in work. Most horses in moderate work (three to five hours a week) or heavier work need more calories than hay alone provides. Moreover, the sugars and starches in grain provide the most efficient fuel for performance horses and are essential for replenishing muscle glycogen, the fuel used during exercise–so on hay alone, your horse may run out of gas. He may also miss certain minerals, amino acids and other nutrients essential for top performance.
- he’s growing. Hay is short in -essential amino acids (especially lysine) needed for muscle development and minerals needed for bone development. And a young growing horse (especially up to 18 months) may have a difficult time eating enough hay to get the -nutrition he needs as his digestive tract is still developing.
- he’s old. Aged horses may benefit from the higher-quality protein and amino acids that grain concentrates supply. They also digest and absorb nutrients less easily, so a concentrate with processed nutrients may help. When horses have tooth issues and can’t chew hay properly, a complete grain concentrate may be essential.
- she’s pregnant. Hay won’t provide several nutrients required to support the developing fetus–and as the fetus grows and demands more room inside the mare, she may not be able to physically consume enough hay to meet her needs.
- she’s lactating. Hay alone probably won’t provide enough calories to maintain a mare’s condition during lactation, and grass hays especially lack protein and minerals for milk production.
If your horse isn’t in one of those categories, then hay may provide enough calories and protein to meet his needs. Because even the best hay may lack some essential nutrients, he should also get a vitamin-mineral supplement. (All horses also need supplemental salt to -replenish what is lost in sweat.) Watch for loss of body weight or condition, poor hair coat, poor hoof condition or poor performance, which may suggest that he’s not getting everything he needs.
Some horses can and do get fat on hay. Obesity is a health issue, so if your horse is in this group you’ll need to find ways to limit his calories. There are two methods:
- Feed less hay. But don’t feed less than 1 percent of the horse’s body weight, or you may trade obesity for colic or wood chewing, cribbing and other behavioral problems.
- Feed low-cal hay. Hay harvested at later maturity has fewer calories but still gives the horse something to chew and put in his stomach. Keep in mind that it also contains less of other nutrients, so don’t skip the vitamin-mineral supplement. Mature hay may also be dusty, so be careful if your horse has breathing problems.
How Should He Get It?
You can feed hay on the ground or in a rack, and there are arguments for and against each method.
When hay is on the ground, the horse eats with his head and neck in a natural grazing position. Dust stays at ground level, so less goes in the horse’s nose and airways. But hay fed on the ground may be easily trampled, used as bedding and contaminated with manure.
Hay fed in racks stays cleaner because it’s kept off the ground, so less is wasted. But when the horse has his head up and pulls hay out of a rack, he’s more likely to inhale airborne hay dust and leaf matter. Horses with respiratory problems should have their hay on the ground.
When hay is fed to a group of horses, make sure all can get their share without fighting. One hay rack may service four to six, depending on its size and the behavior of the horses. If there are issues, add another rack or feed additional hay on the ground. Check racks periodically for damage and rough spots, which could cause injuries. Interestingly, horses tend to eat better in groups when hay piles (or grain buckets) are placed in a large circle, 25—30 feet apart, rather than in a straight line.
No matter how you dish it out, check each bale as you feed it for mold or foreign objects. Soaking or steaming hay before feeding can help horses with certain health problems and aged horses, who produce less saliva and may be better able to chew moist, softened hay.
How Is It Sold?
Most horse hay comes in square bales (actually rectangular)–usually two-string bales, which weigh 40—75 pounds, and sometimes three-string bales, which weigh 100—140 pounds. Because bales vary in size, buying by weight–generally by the ton–is the only way to compare prices. (There are 40, 50-pound bales in a ton of hay.) If you buy by the bale, weigh a few bales from the lot on a common bathroom scale to know how much hay they contain.
Hay prices vary from year to year and region to region, depending on supply and demand. The price is usually lower during the growing season. It may be lower still if you contract with the grower and buy it out of the field, so when it’s baled it goes directly to your farm rather than into storage. Shipping raises the cost–the more distant the source, the more you’ll pay. Generally you’ll get the best price if you buy a semi truckload, provided you have storage for the quantity the truck holds.
While square bales are easiest to handle, round bales, which weigh anywhere from 800—1,200 pounds, can be placed in a field for many horses to nibble on. Round bales can provide enormous cost and labor savings for large horse farms, as long as they are properly put up and stored. (See “Hay for Boarded Horses” on page 50).
Hay also comes in processed forms that are useful if the real deal is in short supply or if your older horse has trouble chewing. Hay cubes or alfalfa cubes (made from chopped grass or alfalfa hay) provide better fiber than alfalfa pellets. Be sure to soak the cubes in water so they break up easily in your fingers, or your horse could choke. Bagged chopped hay is another option; look for a product without molasses to avoid overfeeding sugar.
Round bales can provide good nutrition for pastured horses while saving money and work for their owners. This all-you-can eat buffet obviously isn’t good for overeaters and obese horses whose access to hay should be limited; but round bales that are properly cured and stored are safe for horses.
- Curing: Excess moisture in hay leads to mold -formation, heating and, in extreme cases, spontaneous combustion. Large round bales hold internal heat longer than square bales, so the hay that goes into them should be cured to a lower moisture level (typically around 15 percent).
- Storage: Store round bales under cover with protection from the weather, just as square bales are stored. When round bales are left outside, damage from weather and ground moisture can eat up almost 40 percent of the bale’s total volume. An outer 6- to 8-inch layer of thatch develops, and it may contain mold and dangerous mycotoxins.
Plastic wrapping is a relatively new way to store round bales, but it may not be right for all types of horse hay. In research at Middle Tennessee State University, wrapping seemed to concentrate potentially harmful endophyte toxins in tall fescue hay.
- Feeding: Use a round bale feeder to cut down on hay wastage from trampling or manure contamination. Choose one designed for horses (those made for cattle have a bar across the top that can injure horses when they pull back from the hay). Have enough round bales to accommodate the number of horses in a given field, and take care to provide new bales as needed so horses always have access to fresh hay.
Hay for Boarded Horses
If you board your horse and don’t buy his hay yourself, you still need to be concerned about quality. Take time to examine the hay that he’s fed using the guidelines in this article. Before you move your horse to a new barn, ask:
- What type of hay do you feed? Can I see it?
- How do you evaluate the hay that you purchase?
- Where do you store your hay?
- How much hay do you feed each horse per day? If the answer is in “flakes” or “bales,” ask to see a bale so that you can determine how much hay is actually being fed.
- Is hay fed individually or group-fed in pastures? If it’s fed to the group, there should be enough feeders or stations to ensure that all the horses can get to the hay.
- Do pastured horses get hay or only pasture? They should get hay whenever needed, especially when grass is sparse, grazed down or dormant.
- If I want my horse to be fed extra hay (or soaked hay or a particular type of hay), what do I need to do?
Hoffman, PhD, is an associate professor of horse
science at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro. Her research and
teaching focus on equine nutrition, especially insulin resistance in horses and
how it is affected by diet, obesity, pregnancy and disease.
article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Practical