Horseback Riding

Hay Shortages

December 26, 2011

How you manage the problem can make a difference for your horse.

Hay Shortage

Hay should be free of dust, weeds, dirt, insects and mold. Journal photo.

By Dr. Thomas Lenz in The American Quarter Horse Journal

Many horse owners across the country have been affected by drought, floods and fires during the last year, and the result is a severe shortage of hay in many parts of the United States.

Horses need to eat at least 1 percent of their body weight in forage daily. Long-stem hay (at least 2 inches in length) also promotes a healthy intestinal tract and decreases the risk of colic. In addition, horses are designed to graze 16 to 18 hours a day, and when nutritional forage is not available, they tend to chew on fences, trees and one another’s manes and tails.

Stretching the Hay

There are a number of ways to stretch your hay supply or to supplement it. Hay can be shipped in from parts of the country not experiencing drought or excess moisture, but transportation often costs more than the hay. Chopped or bagged hay is available, but that option can also be expensive if you are feeding a number of horses. Grass, alfalfa and mixed hay cubes are available and are nutritious but can also be expensive if you are feeding a number of animals.

Hay pellets provide a uniform nutritious source of fiber, but do not provide the long-stem roughage required for a healthy G.I. tract. Other potential downsides to pellets are that horses eat them very quickly and are therefore left with long periods of boredom between feedings. In addition, they can cause choke in geriatric horses.

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Beet pulp is an excellent source of fiber and can be purchased alone or in combination with molasses to improve its palatability. While soaking beet pulp is not necessary, many horse owners choose to do so, especially if feeding older horses. Complete feeds that include both a hay source and concentrates built in are also available. These feeds are excellent for older horses that have low digestion abilities and poor teeth. Again, they are consumed quickly, and you’ll need to deal with the lack of long-stemmed fiber and the potential for boredom.

Hay Considerations

Droughts and wet conditions not only decrease the amount of hay available but also decrease the quality of hay that is harvested. When buying hay, there are a number of factors that you should consider. First decide if you want legume, grass or mixed hay for your horses. Legume hay (typically alfalfa) is generally higher in nutritional content than grass hays such as timothy, brome, orchard grass or bermuda.

Maturity of the plants at baling also has an influence on the hay’s nutritional value. As plants mature, their energy and protein contents decrease rapidly. Therefore, if you are looking for good-quality hay, make sure it was harvested before it reached maturity and went to seed. When evaluating hay, there are a number of factors, including leafiness, texture, color, odor and cleanliness, that will help you visually estimate its quality. Leafiness is important because leaves contain more nutrients and less structured carbohydrates than stems. Structured carbohydrates are not easily digested by the horse and increase as the plant matures.

Texture is a good indicator of how mature the hay was at harvest time. It can be evaluated by pulling a sample out of a bale and folding it in your hands. It should be soft and pliable, not coarse or brittle. Coarse or stemmy hay generally has low nutritional value and is difficult for the horse to eat.

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Color is another significant indicator of hay quality and represents the amount of sun bleaching that occurred in the field or the amount of time the hay has been stored. Newly baled hay will be greener and contain more vitamins than hay that has been stored.

I believe that odor is one of the best indicators of hay quality. Hay should smell fresh and not moldy. If it smells good enough to eat, it probably is. Moldy hay should be avoided at all costs, as it can cause colic and respiratory problems.

And finally, cleanliness is very important. Hay should be free of dust, weeds, dirt, insects (especially blister beetles in alfalfa) and mold. Dusty hay compromises the horse’s respiratory system and may cause the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (heaves) that can be career-ending. If the only hay available is dusty, soak it for 30 minutes or so before feeding it. In addition, using hay racks can save up to 40 percent of hay that would be wasted or lost if fed on the ground.

Of course, the best way to determine the quality of hay is to submit samples to your local equine extension office. Officials there can accurately determine its nutritional value, including protein level and mineral content. For more information on selecting the best hay for your horses, contact your local equine extension nutrition specialist. Remember that good quality hay should be the foundation of every horse nutrition program.