Hay that looks great on the outside may or may not be nutritionally adequate for your horse. Learn how to spot high quality forage for your horses. Grass and Legume are an important part of a horses diet should make up the majority of a horse’s diet. Ideally, horses should have access to high quality hay and/or grasses all day long. The digestive system of a horse is designed to slowly and regularly digest primarily forage. Providing high quality hay or grass can drastically reduce the risk of colic.
Here are some Tips on what to look for. Hay generally falls into two categories. Legume hay such as alfalfa and clover is higher in protein, calcium and vitamin A. It is a great choice for young and growing horses, lactating mares and performance horses. Grass hay such as timothy, orchard, brome, fescue, prairie or wild native, oat and bermuda is lower in protein and energy, but makes a great choice for many adult horses.
Factors in Quality of Hay
The most important factor of quality hay is maturity of the plants. Legume that is past bloom is poor quality. If it contains flowers and large stems it has been too mature at cutting to make great quality hay. Grass hay is deemed unsuitable for horses when you see mature seed heads. Look for numerous, large and well formed seed heads and large stems. If you can see them, the hay is of poor quality. The more mature the grass at the time of cutting, the less nutritional value it holds.
Another factor is the color. If hay is stored too long or is bleached excessively by the sun it will lose it’s color. The precursor to vitamin A, carotene, is responsible for the green color in grass. Color is not always an indicator of good quality hay. If you see green colored weeds within the bails of hay, the nutritional value may be less than that of a beige bale of hay. If you see a lot of seed heads, the grass was too mature at the time of cutting. Make sure your hay consists of plenty of small leaves and small stems. If you purchase legume hay, make sure you don’t see flowers and large stems, which indicate poor quality and great maturity at the time of cutting. Take a hand full of hay and squeeze. If it hurts your hand it is too mature and stemmy for your horses.
Smell test your hay. Great quality hay will have a sweet and pleasant aroma. If it smells musty or moldy don’t feed it to your horses. Hay that smells could be heat damaged or contain mycotoxins (mold toxins), which are harmful to your horses. Heat damage does not harm but contains less nutritional value.
Check hay for insect infestation. Alfalfa is particularly prone to infestation from the blister beetle, which is toxic and potentially lethal for horses.
Make sure you purchase your supply from a trusted source. You are less likely to end up with damaged, moldy or nutritionally inadequate hay. Don’t buy anything you see advertised on the side of the road. Don’t go for supplies that are reduced in price. Most likely you end up with very low quality, unsuitable for your horses. Make sure you purchase and feed your hay within 1 year of harvesting. Store it in a dry and protected area to prevent moisture and sun exposure.
A mature horse will eat anywhere from 2% – 2.5% of it’s body weight per day. Approximately half of that should be in forage and roughage. If your horse weighs 1000 lbs it should eat about 10 lbs of hay per day.
There is no proven or certain way to know if you hay is of great quality unless you have it chemically analyzed or purchase your supply from a company that chemically analyzes it’s supply. In the meantime trust your eyes and nose to determine the quality of your hay. You can feed the lower quality hay to your cattle. Cows have a different digestive system and can utilize lower quality hay.