3 November 2021

Hay or haylage: which is the best forage to feed your horse?

Choosing between hay and haylage is a decision often made simply on cost, but with so many products on the market these days, how can you be sure you’re making the right choice for your horse so that you are providing the correct diet? Its sugar content, for example, will be a key factor in feeding an overweight horse; bale size will be crucial for small yards and being able to store it outside will be vital for others. Your Horse asked a nutritionist from HorseHage about some of the factors you need to consider when choosing between feeding hay or haylage to a horse.

Hay is normally the cheapest type of forage. Usually locally produced, it can be inconsistent as quality and hygiene is dependent on the type of grass harvested and its dry matter at the time of baling, as well as the weather conditions during harvesting. A dust-free forage is more important than nutritional value, as hay with a low nutritional content can be supplemented with either a bagged forage and/or concentrates. It should have a clean, sweet smell and a greenish colour. Hay shouldn’t be fed if it’s musty or dark.

Pros of feeding a horse hay:

  • Cheap
  • Easy to handle
  • Can be soaked to reduce its sugar content
  • Easy to source and bulk buy

Cons of feeding a horse hay:

  • May contain dust, even mould spores
  • Unlikely to have nutritional analysis unless you arrange for it to be analysed yourself
  • Higher sugar content than wrapped haylage — contrary to popular belief
  • Must be stored undercover

Big-bale haylage

Many feed merchants offer large-baled, locally-produced farm haylage that’s unbranded — or you might be able to buy it directly from the farmer. Big-bale haylage is often made from older pasture, which may previously have been grazed.

As with hay, previously grazed pasture tends to be perennial, containing weeds that may be unpalatable for horses. After cutting, wilting and baling, the bales are haylage are wrapped to exclude air. The quality, nutritional content, dry matter and acidity may all be variable. As with any bagged, forage, if it’s allowed to stand open for too long, or if the bales are punctured, the haylage may become contaminated.

Pros of feeding a horse haylage:

  • More palatable than hay
  • Less likely to be dusty
  • May have nutritional analysis, depending on the source

Cons of feeding a horse haylage:

  • Can go off if left standing open for too long
  • Unlikely to be guaranteed quality, because you can’t see inside until the bale is unwrapped
  • May contain chemical additives, inoculants and/or mould inhibitors
  • Higher sugar content than bagged forage
  • Big bales can be difficult to handle

Small-bale bagged forage

Top-quality bagged forage from a reliable producer will have a consistent and high nutritional value, as well as a full nutritional analysis and quality guarantee. The selected grasses are specifically sown for this purpose and are usually regularly reseeded to maintain grass quality, with production analysed daily.

It’s cut and turned in the same way as hay, but instead of allowing it to dry completely on the field, it’s baled when the grass has semi-wilted and the dry matter has reached around 55%. Strict quality control takes place throughout the production process in order to ensure an optimum moisture content of between 35% and 45%, together with the correct fibre and nutrient levels.

The bales are hydraulically compressed to reduce air in the bag for optimum fermentation and to minimise the growth of mould and bacteria. The surviving yeast and bacteria start to ferment, causing the sugars in the grass to break down, reducing the acidity level and giving it a pleasant, sweet smell while preserving the grass. The bales are then heat-sealed into double-lined plastic bags to reduce the risk of puncturing.

Pros of feeding a horse bagged forage:

  • Dust-free
  • Full nutritional analysis provided and quality guaranteed
  • Low sugar content, with some varieties suitable for those prone to laminitis
  • Easy-to-handle bales that can be stored outside

Cons of feeding a horse bagged forage:

  • Expensive
  • Not as easy to get hold of, as need to be bought from a manufacturer rather than directly from a farmer

The golden rule when choosing whether to feed hay or haylage to your horse is remembering that every horse should be fed as an individual in order to suit their specific requirements.

Don’t miss Your Horse’s Winter Feeding Guide 2021, free with our November issue and on sale now

Your Horse

by Your Horse

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