Forage is a vital part of your horse's diet but the big problem with hay and haylage quality is that it can appear to the layman’s eye to be a good, healthy bale – but under analysis prove deficient in certain nutrients.
Hay quality varies every year from area to area and field to field. Here equine nutritionist Dr Annette Longland’s tells us how to tell whether our forage is good quality:
1. Make sure your hay has been harvested at the right stage for the needs of your horse. As a rough guide, there needs to be a high leaf to stem ratio for horses requiring higher energy and protein hays; and a higher stem to leaf ratio for those with lower nutritional requirements, for example laminitics and horses in light work.
2. Your hay should be greenish in colour – not brown and certainly never dark brown.
3. It should feel dry – and increased warmth you can feel when put your hand inside a stack of bales may be indicative of it being baled too wet. If this heating is extreme, the hay may catch fire. However, it shouldn’t be over-dry (which is rare in the UK) so that much of the leaf has shattered, crumbled and been lost.
4. The hay should be stored correctly, i.e. in an airy barn with good ventilation. If possible, leave all doors open and leave ‘airways’ between stacks of bales so any new hay continues to lose water to the atmosphere, and this moisture doesn’t end up as condensation on other bales, allowing mould to grow.
5. Your hay should have a good smell and not smell ‘musty’.
6. It should be visibly clean and free from dust and mould.
7. It should be free of poisonous weeds, for example ragwort, and also free of mud/rodent/insect and general contamination with rubbish (you would be amazed at what some people have found in baled hay, including a crushed plastic baby’s bottle and batteries).
8. It should have the right ‘feel’. Softer meadow hays may be better for horses with poor teeth.
9. Have your hay analysed in a laboratory – a number of the larger feed companies offer this service for around £15 (search online for contact details) – as until you’ve done this it’s hard to make a judgement call as to whether you need to balance any deficiencies. Feeding high levels of supplementary protein to animals fed high-protein hay is a terrible waste and will only end up on the muck heap! Only if the hay is analysed can the diet be properly balanced with concentrate feeds and feed balancers.
Top tip: If your horse has laminitis...
If your horse is overweight or prone to laminitis, his hay analysis should include a water-soluble carbohydrate (or WSC) value, or a non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) value. It’s recommended these animals have forages containing less than 10% WSC or 12% NSC.
Hay making explained
We’ve been making hay in the UK for around 6,000 years, so surely we should be good at it by now and able to produce perfect hay at all times? Sadly the answer’s no, as successful hay making relies on the forage being dried so it contains no more than 20% moisture before being baled or stored. Thus good hay production depends on good weather – a rare commodity for some areas of the UK!
Hay in the UK is predominantly grass hay, and one of two types – meadow and seed:
Meadow hay consists of many species of grass, legumes (such as clover and alfalfa), herbs and flowers from older, established pastures
Seed hay consists of either a single species or a limited number of species that have been specifically sown for hay production, often from rotationally cropped pastures less than five years old.
In the UK, the most nutritious hay is normally cut in June, just before flowering. This is because grasses and legumes form the basis of UK hays, and when these plants start to grow in spring they produce mostly leaves, with little stem, and these leaves contain high levels of highly digestible protein and carbohydrates.
As the plant matures it goes from this young leafy growth in spring, to an increasingly tall plant prior to flowering with a good protein and digestible energy content, through to a very stemmy plant that has flowered, produced and dispersed seed in late summer. With increasing amounts of stem the protein content declines and the fibre content increases.
So the more leaf you have in your hay, the more digestible it is, and the more stem you have the less digestible it is.
More about our expert
Dr Annette Longland is an independent equine nutritionist who runs Equine and Livestock Nutrition Services. She’s an expert on pasture, grazing and forage.