Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Allison Price
Hay is the main forage horse horses consume, and its importance in their diets cannot be denied. Hay may be the only food available for horses at certain times of the year. Therefore, it is important to select well-preserved hay that has reached the right stage of maturity.
There are three types of hay: grass, legume and mixed. Mixed hay can be described as a mixture of grass and legume plants. However, some horse owners and hay producers may refer to it as a mixture of multiple grasses. Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D. has opened hundreds upon hundreds of bales during her time caring for horses and owning them. Crandell, unlike most horse owners, is more attentive to the quality of the hay that they give their horses. She is a nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research (KER) and understands the importance good-quality hay.
Crandell determines the type and quality of legume hays before he can evaluate them. Alfalfa is the most common legume, but other legumes like red or crimson clover and birdsfoot trefoil are also used by horse owners. These legumes provide horses with high-quality nutrients.
A thorough visual appraisal is required when evaluating hay. An appraisal requires that several bales are opened. While smaller bales are easy to open, larger round bales require more effort. Pure legumes are not usually roundballed, but an instrument that removes core samples from hay bales can be used if they are. The probes can be used to take hay samples for chemical analysis or nutrient determination. The probe should be used to assess the hay collected from whole bales.
Crandell then evaluates the color and texture of the hay. It could be bright green, dark green, or even pale green. Or it might be yellow. Although color is not the only way to determine hay quality, it can give you an idea of how it was made. It is likely that the hay was cut at the right time and dried quickly. The best conditions for preserving nutrients are those that have been baled in the optimal conditions.
Crandell says it is not uncommon to find bales with both green and brown plant material. The hay will have less nutritional value if the leaves are dark brown. Leaves deliver the most nutrients. The hay will be nutritious if the stems are occasionally brown, but the leaves and stems remain green and well-anchored,
Crandell stated that yellow, brown, or faded hay means it was laid in the field for a longer time to dry or rained on after being cut in field. This would indicate loss of nutrients due to leaching by rain or sun.
Leaf-to-stem ratio is the most important criteria for selecting legume hays. If there are a lot of leaves but few stems, it means that the hay was matured properly and that the baling process did not result in any hay falling apart. This is often the case with legumes. Hays that have a lot of stems but few leaves can sometimes be found to be the opposite. This is usually a sign that the leaves were removed during baling, or while the hay was being laid in the field.
“I also pay attention to stem coarseness. This tells me when the plants are mature. The stem is very low in nutrients and has a lot of indigestible fiber. Crandell added that horses don’t like stems that are too old, and they also have marginal nutrition.”
Noticing the presence of unusual growths on leaves, insects or mold is important. Crandell suggests that you scan multiple bales of alfalfa for blister beetles. These lethal insects can infect only a small number of bales, as they often swarm.
“I may shake a few handfuls to see how dust flies. Most hay contains some dust. However, it is best to let the dust settle if there is a lot of dust. This is especially important if your horse has a serious respiratory condition. To determine if the hay is fresh, old, or moldy, I always smell it. Crandell noted that hay may have a distinctive smell if it was wet. This could be due to caramelization of proteins.
Although clover hays may not be as well-known as alfalfa, they can be used for horses. Horse owners avoid clover because of its tendency to mold. Growers have to be able to get clover dry quickly in the field. This is why clover hay can sometimes become moldy.
Clovers and alfalfa have a lot in common nutritionally. They are richer in calcium and protein and more calorie dense than grass hays. Because it grows taller and produces more yield per acre, red clover clover is the most popular clover hay. Crimson clover, another type of clover hay that grows taller than white clover, tends to have more indigestible fibers than red clover. Horses are more likely to enjoy clover’s taste and eat it well so palatability is not an issue.
Some horse owners mistakenly associate clover with excessive salivation. Horse owners mistakenly believe clover is what causes horses to slobber. However, the cause is actually a mycotoxin that is produced by a fungus that is able to grow on clover. Slaframine poisoning is also known as excessive salivation. It is not considered to be life-threatening.
There are two main types of popular grass hays: warm-season and cool-season. Cool-season grasses tend to be more appealing to horses. However, warm-season grasses can be accepted by horses, particularly those who are used to them. The most popular cool-season grasses are timothy and ryegrass. The warm-season grasses are bromegrass, Bermuda grass (also known as coastal), and most recently, teff.
Cereal hays are a special type of grass. These hays are made of leaves, stems and grains of wheat, barley, or oat plants. Good quality cereal hay is harvested at the soft dough stage, when the grain has reached maturity. The leaves and stems are still fresh and contain more nutrients. It is not considered hay if the cereal hay has been removed from the grain. Oat hay, the most commonly fed cereal hay in the United States, is very palatable for horses if it is harvested at the right moment.
Timothy is considered the best grass hay because of its palatability. Crandell is not denying that timothy is good for horses. However, Crandell also believes it is more palatable for horses than the orchardgrass. Horses who were raised on timothy may have trouble getting used to it.
Over the past two decades, Fescue has been widely discussed for its potentially harmful effects on pregnant mares if it is infected by an endophyte fungal disease. Horses seem to eat more of this pasture grass in the fall after a frost has fallen and the sugar content has increased. It would be harvested as hay in the spring and summer, so it might not pose a problem for some horses.
Crandell applies the same method to evaluate grass hays, as she does for legumes. Seed heads are the best way to determine what type of grass it is, but blade characteristics can also be used. “Fescue blades are rolled up in length when dried, while the blades of orchardgrass dry open. It is easy to identify these two plants. Crandell said that despite having a wider blade than most hays it is still distinctive enough to be recognized by few horse owners.
It is crucial to distinguish between different types of hay, even if it is just for the purpose of buying the right hay. Many orchardgrass hays can be sold as “timothy” because most horse owners don’t know what the differences are in the seed heads. Crandell stated that a mixture of grasses in a Hay is more common on the east coast of America than a pure single-species hay. Crandell also evaluates the physical characteristics of the hay to determine its harvesting method.
It depends on what kind of hay you are using. If the orchardgrass has been harvested at an older stage, Timothy hay will be lighter than orchardgrass. A brownish tint could indicate that the hay was too wet or went through caramelization. Because they are more golden, warm-season hays tend to be less attractive than cool-season varieties. Cereal hays should have a light green color. A straw-like yellow color indicates that the hay has been harvested too late, and is less nutritious.
Then, she estimates the plant’s maturity. “The number and age of the seeds heads, the ratio of leaves to stalks, color and texture are all indicators of maturity. To get an idea about the texture of the hay, I grab a few. “Early-maturity Hays feel softer than those of late maturity.” Crandell also checks for mold and dust.
Mixed hay can sometimes be confusing. This is why it is important to clarify the term. Mixed grass hays often include a mix of grasses. Some are specifically grown for horses, others are not. Common grass/legume mixtures include timothy/alfalfa and orchardgrass/alfalfa. I have seen beautiful bales of the classic alfalfa/timothy mix. The orchardgrass/red-clover mix is particularly useful for picky eaters. Crandell explained that the red clover can sweeten the orchardgrass so horses will want to get in.”
Two benefits can be derived from mixing grasses and legumes. The first is land improvement. The second is the improvement of the land. Growing legumes with grasses will reduce fertilizer requirements and grow costs. Another advantage is palatability. A legume can be added to a grass to increase sweetness and consumption. The quality of the grass is also improved by adding a legume to it. This increases energy, protein and calcium.
Horse owners may prefer grass/legume mixtures to pure legumes. This is because the mix has a higher or lower level of key nutrients, making it suitable for different horse classes. There is a practical advantage to this as well. Horses can’t pick out the delicious portions of grasses and legumes if they are fed together, unlike if they were given a mixture of both grass and legume.
Horse ownership is only possible if you are able to understand the intricacies of hay selection. Selection of the best hay is a test that horses do. If they are willing to eat it, then they have successfully selected the right hay.
Hay can provide adequate calories. However, depending on where the forage came from, it may contain additional vitamins and minerals. These can be supplemented with an equine mineral supplement, or a ratio balancer.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!