Be a Hay Connoisseur

Good owners know whether the hay they are feeding is the right type and the right quality.

If a horse does not have access to pasture, hay is usually the mainstay of diet. Next to pasture, good-quality hay is the most natural feed for horses. In this article we'll help you become a "hay connoisseur," knowing what is good, and what to watch out for.

Types of Hay

Hay falls into several categories: grass, legume, mixed (combination of grass and legume), and cereal grasses such as oat hay. Some of the more common grass hays for horses include bromegrass, timothy, orchardgrass, coastal Bermuda grass, fescue, ryegrass, and meadow grasses, according to Kathleen Crandell, PhD, Superintendent of the Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension (MARE) Center in Middleburg, Va. Legumes include alfalfa, various clovers, and lespedeza.

W. Burton Staniar, PhD, formerly of the MARE Center (now an assistant professor of equine nutrition at the Penn State Department of Dairy and Animal Science), says specific forage plants used for hay will vary greatly from region to region, depending on what grows best in that climate or soil. In northern parts of the United States, timothy is grown because it tolerates cold weather and starts growing early in the spring, but it doesn't do well in hot climates.

In some parts of the country, reed canarygrass or ryegrass are more common. In central or southern regions you might find coastal Bermuda grass, or brome because these tolerate heat and humidity better than timothy or bluegrass.


"Timothy is the traditional hay grass (in northern Virginia), but now we are seeing more horsemen select orchardgrass, or orchardgrass mixed with a legume," says Staniar.

"There is some fescue hay still being made for horses, and there's no problem with it as long as it's not fed to pregnant mares (because of reproductive and lactation problems associated with fungal endophytes that infect some fescue)," says Staniar. "There are palatability issues if it's too mature, but when harvested at the right time, it has good nutrient content and can be a very good forage source."

Fescue is often used as hay, but it is hardly ever sold under that name because of its potential negative effects on pregnant mares. It might be sold under the name of orchardgrass or timothy because of the bad press it's gotten due to the endophyte problem. Fescue is an easy hay to grow and is fine for nonpregnant horses.

Cereal grain crops are sometimes cut for hay while still green, rather than waiting for seed heads to mature as grain. If harvested properly, oat hay works well for horses, especially when grown with a legume. The latter provides protein and other nutrients the oat hay lacks.

There is also some risk of nitrate poisoning if cereal hay--or any forage, for that matter--is harvested after a growth spurt following a period of drought. Weather conditions during growth can be a large factor in whether the hay is safe or not. Even though cattle are more adversely affected than horses, it might be wise to test cereal hay for nitrate content.

Legume hay usually has a higher level of digestible energy, vitamin A, calcium, and other nutrients than grass hay. Alfalfa, for instance, can have twice the protein and three times the calcium of typical grass hay. Early bloom alfalfa (cut before the blossoms open) has more than 18% crude protein, compared with 9.8% for early bloom timothy (before seedheads fill), and 11.4% for early bloom orchardgrass. Alfalfa cut at full bloom drops to 15.5% crude protein, compared to 6.0% for late bloom timothy and 7.6% for late bloom orchardgrass.

Selecting Hay

The type of hay you choose might depend on what's grown in your area, unless you want to pay the extra cost of having it hauled in--a price that can be extremely high due to fuel costs.

"If you live in Florida, for instance, you may be able to get a good Bermuda grass, but many people want timothy or alfalfa brought in from other parts of the country," says Crandell. "In California, there's a lot of alfalfa available, and you pay more to get grass hay hauled in. Your best buy is usually one of the types of hay grown in your area, but sometimes you must get hay somewhere else to get a good quality."

The important thing to keep in mind when selecting hay is the nutritional needs of the animals being fed. Mature horses don't need high protein or calcium levels except in late pregnancy or lactation. Not every horse needs top-quality alfalfa, and very few need dairy-quality alfalfa--it should only be given as a protein and calcium supplement rather than the mainstay of the diet, since it provides more nutrients than needed by most horses

"There is also a market for mature timothy hay that doesn't have the highest nutrient content, but might be just right for a gelding that's not working hard and is an easy keeper," says Staniar. "Often times, a hay with these characteristics could be considered a quality hay for this type of horse because it has enough fiber to help maintain gastrointestinal health," yet prevent obesity and related problems.

Nutritionists say many horse owners need to learn more about plant physiology and understand what "maturity" means.

"Some people think that when they buy timothy it must have seed heads on it so they'll know it's timothy, but by the time the seed head has fully emerged, it's past its peak for good nutrition," Staniar says. "When grass becomes this mature, it is more fibrous and the nutrient content has declined."

The plant has its highest level of nutrients if cut before bloom or seed stage.

When selecting hay, you can't always determine nutrient levels just by looking at it, so it helps to have a nutrient analysis performed to determine fiber content, crude protein, etc. If you can't get an analysis, you must go by what you can see in the hay to judge stage of maturity (to see if there are blooms or seedheads). You should open some bales and check them anyway, just to make sure there's no mold and to look for dust, weeds, foreign material (bits of wire or hay twine, dead animals, etc.) since the outside might not give a clue to what's inside. The outside might look sun-bleached and weathered, yet the inside could be green and good.

"You also need to see how well the leaf material stayed intact (still on the stems)," says Staniar. "If it was harvested correctly, the leaves should hold together instead of shattering and falling off as soon as you open the bale. The hay should also smell good" and not musty, moldy, or dusty.

Crandell says hay should have a good green color. "Loss of color may be an indication that the hay got rained on after being cut and before baling," she says. "Don't buy hay that's been rained on, since 40-50% of the nutrients can be lost." However, for a horse that is an easy keeper and/or has insulin resistance problems, rained-on hay would be a safe way to meet his fiber and basic mineral requirements, as long as it is not moldy. Loss of color usually means primarily a loss of vitamin A and E activity, which can easily be supplemented.

It's hard to find hay that has no dust; there's usually a little dust due to leaf shatter, transfer from the ground during harvest, or due to having been grown next to a dusty road or plowed ground. If it is noticeably dusty, however, it can cause respiratory problems.

Also be on the lookout for mold. Legumes are harder to cure without mold formation than grass hay because it's harder to get the plants completely dry. "Red clover is especially prone to mold and dust because if it's not put up right, it doesn't dry out enough," says Crandell. "The stems of clover and alfalfa are thicker than most grass stems. If the harvesting equipment is not crimping the stems adequately to enable them to dry faster, it won't dry enough and is more susceptible to mold.

"When feeding alfalfa, check for blister beetles," says Crandell. "These are deadly, and it doesn't take many beetles to kill a horse." Equine nutritionists point out that blister beetles can be very hard to detect, and this caution generally only applies to alfalfa grown in the western/midwestern/southwestern states (Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, etc.).

There is more risk when hay blooms before harvest; beetles come to the blossoms to feed and can be killed by haying equipment and end up in the bales. If alfalfa comes from an arid region with lots of grasshoppers, there's more chance it will contain blister beetles, especially if there was a drought the previous year. Larval stages of these beetles use grasshopper larvae as food, and the grasshopper population is higher during dry years. To be safe, buy hay that has not yet bloomed, or first-cutting alfalfa; later cuttings are more apt to contain beetles since they emerge later in the season. Also, you can buy certified blister beetle-free alfalfa in affected regions.

Storing Hay

Important priorities when storing hay are to keep it off the ground, covered, protected from direct sunlight and moisture, and away from small animals that might defecate in it or make nests. Rodents, scavengers, and other small creatures can spread diseases (such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis--EPM--or leptospirosis). When you find hay with feces on it, or a nesting area that contains feces and urine, discard that hay.

If you store hay for the whole feeding season, stack it in such a way that you can always use the oldest hay first. That way you won't end up with some that's been stored a very long time. Extended storage reduces protein and vitamin A levels.

Make sure hay won't heat after being stacked in a hay shed or barn and create a fire hazard. "Some hay producers use a moisture meter to help judge proper timing for baling," says Staniar. The criteria for moisture content will depend on the type of hay being baled, weather conditions (humidity), size of bales, etc. There's less flexibility for moisture levels in large bales compared to small square bales. Even if large bales were harvested properly, if they get a lot of rain on them after harvest, they can still heat and ferment.

Feeding Methods

Small square bales are easy to handle, and they can be fed flake-by-flake or put into a hay rack. Big round bales or large square bales (800 to 1,800 pounds) can be handy, however, if you are setting one out in a pasture or paddock feeder every few days for horses to consume free choice.

"If they always have plenty to eat, they tend to avoid any bad portions, leaving the moldy or spoiled areas," says Crandell. "They may waste a lot, pulling it out and standing on it or lying on it, but they can pick and choose what they eat if you always replace the bale before it's all gone."

When feeding only a couple flakes morning and evening in a stall, however, make sure every bit of it is good hay. Always inspect it as you feed, and discard any questionable portions. "Money lost from throwing away bad hay is always cheaper than colic surgery or loss of a horse, so don't take chances," says Crandell.

The MARE Center uses small bales for the horses in stalls, and large square bales (900 pounds each) for horses at pasture. Those larger bales are loaded onto the back of a truck with a tractor and fed across the field in flakes.

"Originally we used big round bales and bale feeders," says Staniar. "If we had 12 to 15 mares in a pasture, this worked well, but we didn't move the feeders often enough and ended up with dead spots in the field. The horses used the hay fairly well, but the hay would be there for a number of days and if we got a little rain, it spoiled. We lost a considerable amount that way.

He says the MARE Center switched to large square bales that staff members spread from the back of a truck, and they pay close attention to how much the horses eat. This helps avoid wastage.

"In stalls we used hay nets or feed on the ground," Staniar continues. "There's always debate about which way is best, and we do both. If horses have to reach up for the hay, they are more at risk for respiratory problems. On the ground you worry about them picking up worm eggs or sand. There are advantages and disadvantages to both." Hay nets-- especially nylon ones--can be a hazard if they are hung too low, because horses can get their legs tangled in them. Some people prefer to err on the safe side and use hay bags. But it's important to remember that if the stall is kept clean and properly bedded, parasitic eggs and sand aren't as much of an issue and feeding on the ground should be fine.

If a horse is fed a minimum amount of hay when confined, use a feeder that dispenses it through the day or makes it difficult for him to eat it all at once (such as a double hay net, or a feed rack with mesh) so he has to pull it out a little bit at a time and can occupy himself longer without being bored. Frequent munching is better for a horse's digestion and mental health.

"A horse needs a minimum of 1% of his body weight in hay per day if he's also getting a grain ration," says Crandell. "If he's only getting hay (no grain), he needs 2-2.5% of his body weight per day (20 to 25 pounds per 1,000-pound horse)."

The actual amount will depend in part on the metabolism of the horse, how hard he's working (how many calories he needs), and how much he wastes. Some show horses on a high grain ration are fed very little hay to keep them from getting a "hay belly," (a fallacy in itself, because hay only causes a "hay belly" if it is very poor quality) and this is not healthy, says Crandell.

"You'll see some of them eating their manure just to try to get more fill," she says.

Take-Home Message

Feeding hay isn't as simple as giving your horses what shows up in the barn from the hay dealer. Horse owners should inspect the hay, perhaps even have it analyzed for nutrient content, understand what they are looking for that might be a problem, and be able to determine how much each horse should eat for good health.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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