Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Saturday, January 26, 2013

All About Hay For Horses

First My Story

If you've followed my blog to any extent, you already know that I'm originally from the island of Oahu in Hawaii. And you probably already know that I've talked a lot about the fact that my first exposure to horses and cattle came by way of my grandpa ranch there.

Like many kids who have had a chance to grow up on a ranch, learning new things about animals, their care and feeding, their behavior and how to handle them, always seemed to be an ongoing education. Whether it was learning to fix fences to feeding supplements to calves, I definitely learned something new every day.

Looking back on growing up around a ranch in Hawaii, I fully admit that it can be different than on the mainland (Continental United States). For one thing, I grew up on Oahu where I was told does not grow hay of any sort. And honestly, I really had no idea if hay was grown on the other islands either.

I knew that we grew pineapples, sugar cane, macadamia nuts, papayas, bananas, and even rice. In school, we were taught that the only place in the U.S that does grow sugar cane, macadamia nuts, pineapples, papayas, and coffee was the state of Hawaii. And yes, I think that still holds true.

Point is, when I came to California, one of the things that I had to learn about was hay and how to feed it to horses.

My education about hay started when I was a 19 year old Marine just back from overseas and stationed at Camp Pendleton California in the 70s.  During my off duty hours, I could be found at usually one of three places. I'd be either working on my 57' Chevy, fishing on base, or at the Base Stables.

While I was just learning about trout and bass fishing about then, which is 180 degree opposite of fishing in Hawaii, the Base Stables were like a home away from home.

It was there that I learned that hay is the basis of almost every horse diet. That there are many different types of hay, and that the decision about what kind of hay to feed your horse is not an easy one.

There are several types of hays available to choose from, so how can you possibly know which one is right for your particular horse? And really, even if you know a thing or two about what your horse needs as far as nutrition goes, there are a lot of choices of hay to choose from.

Fact is, I learned that there is no right or wrong hay to feed your horse. It's all a learning experience.

It's true, the reason that some people like alfalfa for their horses may be the fact that horses love it and leave very little waste. Alfalfa can be a good choice for finicky eaters or horses with high nutritional needs such as lactating mares, growing foals, hard working horses, and of course horses needing to gain weight.

Others may choose timothy, for example, because it is easy to cure and tends to be dust free. It is also lower in protein, so subsequently horses with lower nutritional needs such as the mature idle horse or horses in light work won’t become too fat.

This is what I mean by a learning experience. For us here in Glencoe, for example, during late spring and summer, we feed a 50/50 alfalfa and oat hay diet to our horses. But during the winter and early spring months, we feed alfalfa and pelleted hay and grain to supplement their diets.

By doing this, it works out where we can keep weight on them during the cold months when they use the extra energy to keep warm.

The Basics About Hay

Well, hay is a harvested plant that has been dried and cured after being cut in the field at various times in its growth period, depending on the type of hay. The leaves grow out first, the plant develops a bud, the bud becomes a bloom, and the bloom eventually goes to seed.

In most cases, hay is cut during the late bud or early bloom phase. This method maximizes hay’s nutritional value and extends the amount of hay that is yielded per acre.

The fiber content of hay increases as it grows,while the protein content diminishes. Most of the protein found in hay is in the leaves, while the stalks are richer in fiber.

In order to produce quality hay suitable for feeding to horses that is free of dust, mold and weeds, then it must be cut at the right age and when the weather is dry and warm. After being cut, the hay dries in the field before it is baled.

While there are many varieties of hays commonly fed to horses in the United States, including timothy, orchard, alfalfa, coastal, oat, fescue, clover and rye, to name just a few.  Most horse owners are probably familiar with only a few types of hay, depending on the part of the country in which they live. 

Quality is also an issue and horse owners should find the highest quality hay they can afford to buy within the geographical area they live in.


Feeding a poor quality protein will result in a horse that is less able to produce body proteins including muscle, bone, tendons, red blood cells, skin, hair, hooves, enzymes and antibodies.

Different Forms of Hay


Hay is not just an important part of the horse’s diet, but is also needed to maintain normal digestive health.

A minimum 1½ inch particle size is important to minimize colic and abnormal behavior. Hay can be provided in the following forms:

Small (40 to 80 pounds) square bales of hay are most commonly used by horse owners. Square bales are comparatively easy to move and store and should be stored indoors or under cover to prevent weather damage. Wet is not good.

Of course, even though they are small in comparison to large round bales, "bucking bales" is a lot easier for younger folks than it is for us older folks. I can attest to that!

Large (800 to 1,200 pounds) round bales are more efficient to produce and can be used for horses. Storage of round bales should be indoors or on a well-drained base and covered with plastic.

The use of a feeder that contains hay and controls wastage is recommended. Be sure that enough horses are consuming hay quickly enough to prevent wastage and molding to occur. Remove hay that has become moldy and in contact with the ground.

Hay cubes can be made from a variety of coarsely chopped hays, but the most common are alfalfa and timothy-alfalfa cubes.

The advantages of cubes include less storage space and handling ease, and decreased feeding waste. Cubes have adequate particle size to maintain normal digestive health and prevent wood chewing, so they can be used to totally replace baled hay.

Be careful when adapting horses to hay cubes, horses may consume them too quickly and choke.

Feed hay cubes close to the ground so horses must chew hay cubes before swallowing. If you provide hay cubes as treats or add to other feeds in above-ground feeders, break cubes into small pieces or wet or soak cubes with water to soften them first to prevent choking.

Chopped hay is usually a length of one inch or more, and it can be used to replace baled hay.

The advantages of chopped hay are similar to hay cubes, with less storage space required, ease of handling, and decreased feeding waste. Chopped hay can be dusty and should be treated with a small amount of molasses or oil to decrease dustiness.

Pelleted hay are similar to cubes and chopped hay is so far as taking up less storage space, ease of handling, and decreased feeding waste.

The benefits are many. With pellets it is easier to control the accuracy of the ration you feed your horse. You will not see hay bellies on a pellet feed horse. Young horses can be put into show shape without excessive graining.

A horse can not eat his grain and supplements selectively when pelleted together. You can eliminate the chance of colic and founder by not having hay lying around.

The life of a horse used to be measured by the life of his teeth. The hay is considered “prechewed” when pelleted – a horse need only “gum” them down and they will be thoroughly digested therefore adding years to the life of your horse.

Some do say that pelleted hay does not have adequate particle size to allow enough chewing time for normal digestive health and may lead a horse to chewing wood or trees. 
Grasses versus Legumes
Each type of hay falls into one of two categories: legumes and grasses. Commonly fed legume hays include alfalfa and clover, with most other hays falling into the grass family.


In order to make the right choice for your horse’s diet, it’s important to understand the nutritional value of legume and grass hays, and how the two types complement each other.

Grass hays have a medium to low protein content. They are low in the essential amino acid, lysine. Therefore, they are best fed as part of a feeding plan that includes a legume, or a supplemental feed, to balance out the amino acid profile.

The fiber content of most grass hays is relatively high, compared to other types of hays. For example, orchard grass, timothy and coastal Bermuda have more stalks, and hence more fiber, than leafier brome grass or fescue.

In contrast to legumes, grass hays are also low in calcium, zinc, selenium and vitamin E.

Timothy is somewhat higher in calcium than other grass hays and has a favorable calcium-to-phosphorus ratio; it also contains a substantial amount of vitamins A and D.

Timothy has long been a favorite hay for horses. It is easily cured into bright lime-green colored hay that is dust free. It’s nutrient content is well suited as a mature horse diet. Stems and leaves are large but soft. Horses find the hay very palatable.

Orchard Grass makes very palatable soft hay that is a bright green in color. It is a leafy plant with few stems. It is does well in the moister areas and is generally used as pasture grass. It combines well with alfalfa and is often grown in a mixture.

Meadow Brome is generally used as a pasture grass as it has many basal leaves, few stems and good re-growth capabilities. It's often used as a hay grass as it combines well with alfalfa, not being as aggressive as smooth brome. Meadow brome cures into soft medium green leafy hay that horses find very palatable.

Intermediate Wheatgrass is a tall growing forage with medium coarse leafy stems. It cures into medium green, dust free hay. It is palatable to horses and when harvested at later maturity. PMU operations favor it.

Crested Wheatgrass is a fine stemmed, leafy grass. It is easily cured into medium green colored hay that is dust free. When harvested in early head it is comparable in quality to other grass hays.

Harvested after heading the quality declines and makes it a hay favored by PMU (Pregnant Mares Urine) operations. Horses like crested wheatgrass but if harvested at late maturity the stems tend to be stiff and the hay is less palatable.

When it comes to prairie or wild native grasses, these hays are typically lower in protein content than other grass hays. Their vitamin and mineral content is also lower. Generally, these grasses are combined with several weeds when grown, which pull nutrients from the grass plant.

Grass and small grain hays vary greatly in nutritive value and palatability, depending on the variety, where it is grown and stage of maturity when harvested. They typically provide less protein and energy than good quality legumes.

Forage Hay is a muliti grain hay that consists of oats, wheat and barley. This hay is relatively new to the hay world, but is an excellent feed for all classes of livestock. 

It has become very popular and is an excellent feed source. Just like oat hay, forage hay is cut at the optimal time to ensure a highly palatable feed for horses, cattle, goats and sheep. 

Oat hay, like all grass hays, meets the nutritional needs of horses that need high fiber and low protein. It is great for horses, especially if you compete, or work your horse hard. I feed our horses a 50/50 oat and alfalfa hay diet.


In contrast to grasses, legumes tend to be rich in nutrients and provide more energy than grass hays.
Alfalfa is one of most commonly fed legume and is widely available in many parts of the country. Alfalfa does well in average growing conditions. And yes, besides alfalfa being very palatable, horses love it!

Alfalfa is generally higher in nutrients and energy than grass hay which makes it an ideal choice for horse owners with mares in late gestation, lactation, or growing foals.

However, some will tell you that horses with lower nutritional needs may get fat on alfalfa whereas grass hay may be a better choice.

While alfalfa hay is well accepted by horses, alfalfa hay has to be fed with some care because of its high calcium level in relation to phosphorus.

Alfalfa is an excellent source of protein and energy.

Adult horses require 10 to 11 percent crude protein in their overall diet, while growing horses require 12 to 14 percent. Pure alfalfa hay can have protein levels up to and exceeding 18 percent protein.

This high level of protein is not required for most horses.

Excess protein from both hay and grain feed sources is broken down into carbohydrates that serve as an additional source of energy.

One downside of alfalfa consumption is that it can lead to increased urination and wetter bedding. Horses on light work schedules may also develop excess energy when fed an exclusive diet of alfalfa.

Experts believe that healthy horses fed alfalfa hay are not at risk for kidney problems, and are really just an old wives tale that has no merit based on use of alfalfa hay and the healthy horse.

Like others who have fed alfalfa regularly, I believe that horses that eat alfalfa hay and get plenty of water to drink are not going to have any problems.

Clover is another commonly fed legume hay and one that is particularly enjoyed by horses.

Horses like clover and will select the highly palatable clovers from the pastures and hay. White Clover has 1/3 less fiber content than other roughages, such as brome grass and alfalfa.

White Clover, in its lush stage of growth, could contain as much as 22 to 25 percent crude protein. So yes, this hay also has a high digestible energy content.

Obviously, Clean Hay Is The Best Hay!

Horses will readily eat many types of grass and legume hay, especially if it is of high quality.

The most common problems that horse owners have when purchasing hay are finding a dependable and consistent supply and determining if it is good quality for their horses.

Cattle have a different digestive system than horses, and can break down fibrous material with greater efficiency, so they can utilize lower quality or more fibrous sources of hay.

Hay will generally make up at least 50 percent of the horse’s daily diet. So subsequently, horse owners need to make sure the hay is clean, is a desirable stage of maturity, is readily consumed by the horse, and is free of dust, weeds and mold.

Horses consuming poor quality hay cannot digest it well enough to maintain body weight and are at greater risk for impaction colic.

So as horse owners, we should make sure that we can determine if the hay you purchase is "horse quality" instead of "cow quality".

Sure it needs to meet your horse’s nutritional requirements, but the type of hay you choose should always be free of dust, mold, and foreign objects like rocks and such.

And yes, one of the biggest challenges that there is for a horse owner is to find good quality dust free hay.

Dust in hay can come from mold spores or leaf shatter. Only in rare occasions does dust come from hay cut along gravel roads or other dusty situations.

Molds form when the hay is baled too wet or the hay is improperly stored allowing moisture to enter from the top or from ground up. Dust from leaf shatter occurs when the hay is too dry, causing the hay to be brittle.

Mold dust acts as an allergen and can cause inflammation of the respiratory tract in horses. Many horses develop a chronic lung problem known as heaves, which affects the horse’s ability to breathe normally. This disease is strictly man made by the repeat feeding of dusty hay.

The second problem with moldy hay is the possible formation of mycotoxins, which are poisonous compounds produced by molds. Moldy, dusty hay simply should not be fed to horses.

It is highly recommended that folks remove hay that has become moldy. Moldy hay can make horses sick from the formation of mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced by different types of fungus.

Mycotoxins can cause harm to your horse by damaging the liver, kidneys, and reproductive tissues. They can also impair immunity making your horse more susceptible to infection and disease. Additionally, their presence can cause your horse to eat less resulting in improper nutrition.

As mold grows, it feeds on the surrounding nutrients thereby lowering the feed value of the hay/grain. And there is more, moldy hay generates heat and can become combustible.

During the winter months when I tend to feed more grains, I always check for grain mold. In grain barrels or in bags, mold can appear gray and fuzzy. It can also cause the grain particles to clump together. It is fairly easy to see.

Moldy hay can poof mold spores when you open a bale. I've even seen them when I've hit it or dropped it. Moldy hay looks different than dusty hay.

Did you ever step on one of those puffballs growing on the ground? Moldy hay poofs like that.

Moldy hay can be a yellowish color, often with spots of black. It may feel damp, or heavy. The flakes may not separate as easily. It smells bad.

The dust problem associated with moldy hay can be reduced by wetting the hay. Soaking hay before feeding it might cut down on respiratory problems, but I'm sorry to say that I've been told that this will not reduce mycotoxins if they’re present.

Now as for round bales, well I've been told that botulism poisoning is more common with round bales due to the greater incidence of inclusion of dead rodents and increased contact of hay with organic material from soil contact.

So What To Feed?

Well, we know that good quality hay or pasture should make up at least half of most horse’s diets.

With all this variation in nutritional value and digestible energy, it can be difficult to determine which types of hay to feed your horse.

However, if you are like most horse owners, you’ll be limited in your decisions based on your geographic location - not all hays are available in all places.

Whatever individual hays are sold in your area, the best option is to combine legumes and grasses to keep your horse healthy.

Grass hay cannot provide all of the nutrients a horse needs to be healthy, so even the finest grass hay will require additional sources of nutrients either from other feedstuffs, such as legumes, other forages, concentrates or from supplements.

Grass hay acts as a staple to the diet by providing a continual source of roughage, which is necessary for the health of the digestive tract. Grass hays are lower in calories than legume hays and therefore are less likely to create weight gain.

In contrast alfalfa mixes and clover mixes are highly suitable for horses that require additional amino acids and calcium for growth and performance. Pregnant and lactating mares, young, growing horses, performance horses and horses with suppressed immune function will benefit from the additional nutritional value that legumes provide.

So, since this is the case, it appears that feeding both grasses and legumes are important in order to provide the right balance of nutrients and high-quality protein.

After all, experts have found that many owners will find feeding a combination of grass with alfalfa to be the best fit for their horse's needs.

How About A Few Hay Buying Tips


• Don’t buy hay with excessive dust or a musty smell. These can indicate mold formation and the presence of mycotoxins, which could be harmful to your horse.

• Purchase hay from a recommended source or supplier, preferably from someone who can provide a laboratory analysis of the hay.

• Buy as much hay as possible at one time to provide a consistent supply to minimize changes in your horse’s feed supply. See if the hay supplier will sell you a few bales that you can inspect and feed to your horses before making a larger purchase.

• For legume hay, the presence of flowers and large stems are indicative of maturity and this may not be of acceptable quality for your horse. 

• Grab a handful of the hay and give it a hard squeeze. If it hurts your hand, it is probably too stemmy and mature to be good quality horse hay.

• Look for seed heads in grass hay, if they are numerous, large and well-formed, and there are large stems present, the hay is probably too mature and fibrous to be acceptable for horses.

• Inspect the bale and if you see a bright green color, and lots of small leaves and small stems, the hay should be good quality for horses.

Keep in mind that roughage is the foundation of a safe and successful feeding program, so spending time selecting the best forage you can afford to buy is a good investment - for your horse and your wallet.

I hope this has been helpful.


Story by Tom Correa

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