As the drought deepens, the supply of good quality hay is dwindling. Farmers hit by the drought, and those whose properties have been ravaged by an early start to the fire season, are taking all the hay they can get. Given this increasingly precarious supply situation, what are we to do? Other than performing an energetic rain dance out in the back paddock (and that’s always an option), brushing up on your knowledge of hay varieties and their nutritional value is a really great idea.
Potential problems: It helps to know what hay you’re being offered at your local produce store. For example, are there likely to be barley grass (not to be confused with barley cereal) seeds in the bale? If so, you need to keep a close eye on your horse’s mouth to ensure that the seeds aren’t becoming lodged in their gums or between their teeth.
Is the hay you’re considering buying dusty or mouldy? Good hay smells sweet, while mouldy or dusty hay has a sour, musty odour and should be avoided. Most hay becomes mouldy due to mould spores, which can cause respiratory diseases in horses (they’re not good for humans either) and can also induce colic – and the same goes for dusty hay.
With the exception of lucerne, which, if it’s good quality, should be a vibrant green, a bright colour in other varieties might indicate that it’s only recently been harvested. Hay should be stored for at least one month before use. Feeding your horse hay that is too fresh can once again create the very serious risk of colic.
Popular choices: Lucerne, also known as alfalfa, and grass hay are the most popular varieties for horses. In a perfect world, hay of all varieties should be baled when the moisture content is no greater than 17%. But if your hay happens to feel slightly damp, don’t store it in a shed – it’s a fire hazard. Peculiar though it may seem, high moisture bales can catch fire because of a chemical reaction that builds heat, leading to spontaneous combustion.
Lucerne Hay: Because of lucerne’s high protein content – up to 18% of its dry weight – it’s wise to consider it as more of a supplement than for general feeding. Although it’s an excellent option for foals and mares with foals at foot, too much can cause a nutritional imbalance in some horses. When purchasing lucerne, look for bales that are bright green, indicating that the hay has been harvested at the right time and has been properly stored. The hay must be soft to the touch, and should have a fresh, pleasant, slightly sweet, grassy odour.
Grass Hay: Grass (or grassy) hay represents a good all-round feeding option, providing up to 10% of its dry weight in protein. But what should you be looking for in order to assess its quality?
Colour: No matter whether it’s in round or square bales, the first thing to notice is its colour – and if you have the opportunity to check the colour at the centre of the bale, so much the better. If the exterior of the bale has been bleached, the vitamin A content will have been diminished. A dull brownish tinge indicates that there’s been some rain while it was drying, but if it’s pale gold or green in colour, you’re on a winner. However, a deep golden colour can mean that it was too dry when it was cut, so again, the nutritional value may well have been compromised.
Texture & Composition: Firstly, check to see whether there are any weeds, thistles, or barley grass seeds. Ideally, the hay should be a good balance of clover and grass – but if the grass looks stalky with large, mature seed heads then it’s probably past its use–by date.
Next, feel the hay to see whether the stalks are flexible. If it’s too coarse and tough, your horse may be reluctant to eat it. You should also check to see whether the leaf disintegrates when touched. If it does, the nutrient value of the hay will have been adversely affected.
Other options: Other than grass hay and lucerne, there are a few other options to consider.
Barley Cereal Hay: Not as nutrient dense as other forages, it is nonetheless worth considering. In order to maximise its nutrient content, barley should be harvested while the seed heads – which are what provide the main caloric value – are still soft and not yet fully developed. When cut at this stage, barley hay contains about 9% protein and provides more or less the same nutrition as mature grass hay. However, if the barley is cut when the seed heads are fully mature, it becomes about as nutritious as straw and the seed awns (they’re the spikey bits sometimes known as the beard) can cause soft tissue damage to the mouth. And if your horse suffers from insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome, barley hay is best avoided altogether.
Rhodes Grass Hay: Usually pale green or gold with long leaves, this is another good protein source for horses. However, bear in mind that its mineral content, including calcium, is less than that of lucerne or grass hay. Another potential issue is its texture, which can be quite dry and stalky, and therefore unappealing to some horses. That said it can still be an excellent feed for horses that don’t have high nutritional requirements.
Shedded hay: If you’re offered shedded hay (hay that has been stored for a period of time) should you buy it? That depends! All hay gradually loses its nutritional value over time. However, if it’s a good quality hay that has been properly stored, even for a season or two, it will still be sufficiently nutritious to make it worth your while.
FiberFresh FiberProtect: Hay is an excellent source of roughage for a horse’s digestive system. Plus, eating from a haynet can help to relieve boredom while they’re confined, as well as keeping their digestive tract active. So if you’re looking for a nutritious alternative to hay, consider using FiberProtect as a base roughage. This product offers good levels of digestible protein and essential amino acids. Consisting of high nutritional fiber that has undergone a fermentation process – think equine kambucha – the result is a safe, healthy feed that makes a great base forage fibre. FiberProtect also helps to reduce acidity in the stomach and hindgut, as well as helping to provide a favourable environment for digestion.
Storing your hay: Once you’ve purchased your hay, here are a few storage tips to remember when your delivery has arrived. Hay should be stored off the ground to prevent it absorbing moisture – a platform of wooden pallets is the perfect solution. As you stack your hay, alternate the direction of each layer and leave a little space between bales. This results in a stable stack with sufficient air flow to help prevent heat build-up. By following these simple steps, you’ll go a long way to keeping your hay in good mould-free condition.
One final thought: no matter which hay you chose, and as with most other feeds, if you change your hay type it’s a good idea to introduce it to your horse gradually to prevent any adverse digestive reactions.