Fall Brings Ritual of Hay Buying for Horses

Fall weather often brings the fall tradition of owners buying hay for their horses according to Tim Schnakenberg, MS, agronomy specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

"Horse owners often are seeking alfalfa, alfalfa-grass mixes, orchardgrass, bermudagrass, timothy and brome. There's good and bad hay sold on the market in every species of hay. What counts is when it was harvested and what the weather conditions were like at harvest," said Schnakenberg.

Conditions at harvest can also impact hay quality. One of the biggest factors is if the hay crop was too mature and not young and tender at the time it is cut.

"A mature crop will lead to more indigestible fiber and less protein, resulting in less intake by the horses. This is probably the number one reason horses may turn their noses up at what you feed them," said Schnakenberg.

If the hay was dried out too long after being cut, leaves may shatter in the windrow and get left behind in the field. If there was a rain on the crop after it was cut, the quality will suffer when baled.

Schnakenberg says there are several things to be looking for when deciding what hay to buy.

"A good green color is a starting place but don't limit yourself to that. You should also look for leafiness, the presence of weeds and seed heads," said Schnakenberg. "Mature seed heads are a sign of an over-mature crop."

Also keep an eye on the presence of mold and the smell of the hay.

But the number one way to determine good hay from bad is to have the hay tested for quality.

A representative sample of the hay, obtained by using a core sampler, can be sent to a certified laboratory for testing. Samples should come from at least ten small square bales or 5 big round bales. The results will come back with information such as fiber content, protein, energy and the relative feed value.

"All of these values can be useful to determine whether the hay you are buying is best for your horse or if perhaps it would be better to feed it to beef cows," said Schnakenberg.

Schnakenberg says there is not much pure, perfect hay on the market so be prepared to pay a premium for top quality hay.

Most MU Extension Centers have core samplers available for loan and can provide a list of labs that test hay. Once the results are back, any extension agronomist or livestock specialist can assist in interpreting the hay test results.

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University of Missouri

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