Finding the best hay for horses
Briony Witherow discusses the new season's crop and how to find the best hay for horses
As horse owners, we face uncertainty every year about the availability of forage and, it is not until we reach this time of year that we can start to get a picture of what this season’s forage has in store in terms of quality, availability, and price. At the time of writing (15th August), average UK grass yields for this year are greater than this time last year and ahead, of the 5-year average¹ and overall, by comparison, conditions for forage production, perhaps better than last year¹. As horse owners, knowing what questions to ask and what to look for when selecting forage is key to getting the best of what’s available.
How to source good forage
When trying to find the best hay for horses, it helps to know your supplier and to invest in the relationship. Just like your farrier or your vet, your forage supplier is a key part of your team. Where possible if you can, visit the producer in person, get a good understanding of what they produce and how, this will improve the chance of getting an appropriate and consistent product.
See below for a list of key questions to ask:
Enquire early. If sourcing a new supplier, get in touch now for next year, some producers will set aside stock or ensure ample is put into production to meet requirement. Many good producers will have 2022 stock already ear-marked for customers before it’s in the ground.
Be clear about what you want. Being comfortable with the key terms associated with forage and being aware of what your horse requires is essential in communicating with the producer. The clearer you can be, the more likely you are to get a suitable product.
Buy early where possible. If you can buy early in the year and collect straight off the field, not only are you likely to get the best price² but, in the event the harvest is poor, this allows you to be a in proactive position to secure more forage.
Key questions to ask suppliers/producers
When was the hay or haylage baled? This allows you to plan when you can start feeding it and, may also give you an idea if weather conditions were challenging at the point of harvest (which may compromise quality).
How mature was the grass at harvest? This may give you an idea of nutrient content; earlier cut (less mature) forages tend to be softer and greener and, more digestible in comparison to later cut (more mature) ‘crunchy’ in the hand types.
If buying part way through the year or buying older hay, where possible it is good to see or ask about where and how it has been stored. This can give you an idea of potential quality; poor storage conditions (for example bales stacked directly on the ground) should ring alarm bells for hygiene issues such as mould.
Try to gauge if the supplier is aware of requirements and suitability when it comes to forage for horses. For example, asking what precautions are taken to avoid poisonous plants or foreign objects. Some producers that are more focused on livestock animals can be unaware of these specific requirements when it comes to horses.
Is it possible to buy hay or haylage from the same field or that was harvested at the same time? While not always possible, some producers will have storage maps and have the potential to provide hay or haylage from the same ‘batch’ throughout the year. While many can’t guarantee this, it is worth asking.
What to look for
Hay should be a green to golden colour; the colour is likely to vary depending on when it was cut and the conditions during harvest. For example, we would expect a lighter colour if the hay had been produced during a very hot period, where some bleaching may have occurred or if the grass was more mature at point of harvest. Hay should be sweet or neutral smelling, avoiding any with obvious mould, dust or foreign objects.
Haylage should be golden in colour and smell sweet. Again, the colour and smell may vary depending on the conditions at harvest. For example, drier haylage tends to smell less sweet and can be less ‘rich’ in colour. Any haylage that smells burnt, alcoholic/fruity/like vinegar or rancid, should be discarded and not fed – this may indicate a problem in the fermentation process.
Your knowledge of the hay or haylage (when it was cut etc.) should tally with what you are seeing, if not, contact the producer, particularly if there is significant variation between bales.
Key forage terms
Yield: How much grass is produced from a particular field or area.
Cut: first, second, early or late ‘cut’ are common descriptions for hay or haylage. First, second or third, simply refers to how many ‘cuts’ have come off a certain field. It is common for more commercial producers growing more productive grass species (like ryegrass) to get up to three cuts in a season, whereas less commercial producers harvesting meadow hay for example, may just get one ‘cut’. The cut number has less of a bearing on nutrition than whether the ‘cut’ is early or late – this simply refers to how mature the grass is at point of harvest. The more mature the grass, the less digestible.
Seed hay or haylage:
if a forage is described as a ‘seed’ hay or haylage, this means that it has been planted and grown specifically for hay or haylage. This tends to mean that it will be made from a single or just a few species of grass– for example, a ryegrass seed hay or a ryegrass, timothy mix seed haylage. Seed forages are arguably produced in a more controlled setting, so you may find these are more consistent in comparison to a meadow type hay or haylage (typically coming from permanent pasture with more diverse grass species).
Transitioning to this year’s hay and haylage
With a poorer forage harvest in 2020, many of us may have been looking to buy and feed this year’s hay or haylage sooner than usual. However, when it comes to buying hay straight off the field, be aware that it may not always be safe to feed immediately. If the dry matter is lower than 86%, microbial activity may still be occurring, making it unsafe to feed. Unless accurate analysis is available to confirm this, it is best to wait 4-6 weeks before feeding. Similarly, haylage requires time for the fermentation process to complete, again a good guide is at least 6 weeks before feeding. When transitioning to this year’s hay or haylage, try to introduce gradually over a period of 2-4 weeks.
Changing from last year’s to this year’s hay or haylage
Where possible, mix the two together for a couple of weeks and then gradually increase the new forage in place of the old season forage until the ration is fully transitioned.
Transitioning from grass only to hay
Start by feeding the hay damp. The difference in moisture content is one of the key challenges to the gut when changing between these two types of forage, so this can really help. Introduce gradually out in the field or bring in for a few hours each day, increasing up to the desired quantity over 2-4 weeks.
For those with a history of colic or that may get ‘loose’ during a change in routine and forage
Provide a prebiotic supplement 2 weeks prior to and post new forage introduction to help support the digestive system. For these types, the transition period may need to be nearer 4 weeks, keep a close eye on droppings to guide you as to whether the change is too quick for that individual. Any sign of disruption here, pause or reduce the new forage slightly until stable and then continue.
Top tips for coping with lower quality forage
In regions which have seen some turbulent weather, good quality haylage may be more easily sourced than hay². As haylage requires less drying time, better quality can often be achieved compared to hay. Although haylage is typically cut earlier than hay, and therefore often more digestible, later cuts are often available which can be just as suitable as hay³ ⁴. Another alternative may be barn dried hay -these are produced under much more controlled protocols (being simply less reliant on the weather) and therefore have the potential to produce high quality hay even where weather conditions are challenging.
While poorly stored or excessively dusty forage should be avoided at all costs, if making the best of poorer quality forage, hygiene and palatability are likely to be the key challenges². To overcome this, hay or haylage can be steamed to improve palatability and hygiene⁵. Alternatively, hay can be soaked for 10 minutes immediately prior to feeding to reduce respirable particles.
Basic nutrient testing can be undertaken for less than £20 and give you a clearer idea of the quality of the forage and likely nutrient provision – this can allow the concentrate ration to be adjusted accordingly when dealing with a lower quality forage² ³.
High fibre replacements or partial replacements are an option, however, should be considered a short-term measure wherever possible. As these products are typically consumed quicker than long-stem hay or haylage, these should only be considered if necessary and alongside measures taken to extend feeding times. Examples include unmolassed beet either as a single ingredient or in combination with alfalfa, chopped fibre and pelleted fibre products.
1. AHDB (2021) Forage for Knowledge. AHDB [online]. Available from: https://ahdb.org.uk/knowledge-library/grass [Accessed 15 August 2021]
2. Muller, C.E. (2012) Impact of harvest, preservation and storage conditions on forage quality. In: Forages and grazing in horse nutrition, EAAP, Volume 132
3. Harris, P.A., Ellis, A.D., Fradinho, M.J., Jansson, A., Julliand, V., Luthersson, N., Santos, A.S., Vervuert, I. (2017) Review: Feeding conserved forage to horses: recent advances and recommendations. Animal: An International Journal of Animal Science, 11 (6): 958-967
4. Muller, CE; Uden, P. 2007. Preference of horses for grass conserved as hay, haylage or silage. Animal feed science and technology 132(1-2): 66-78.
5. Earing, J., Hathaway, M., Sheaffer, C., Hetchler, B.P., Jacobson, L.D. and Martinson, K., (2013) The effect of hay steaming on forage nutritive values and dry matter intake by horses. Journal of Animal Science, 91 (12): 5813-5820