Hay Alternatives

Although regular baled hay is the mainstay of equine diets across North America, it's sometimes more trouble than it's worth. Heavy to stack, bulky to store, prone to vitamin breakdown, and -- heaven forbid! -- also spontaneous combustion, not to mention dust and molds that can aggravate both human and equine respiratory allergies, hay is hardly a maximum-convenience feedstuff.

Fortunately, baled hay is not the only forage option available. Hay can also be pressed into cubes, chopped and processed into pellets, or fermented as silage or "haylage." If your horse suffers from chronic respiratory problems (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called "broken wind" or heaves), has dental troubles that make chewing hay difficult, or is very elderly, one of these alternative forms of forage might be just the ticket. Processed hay feeds also provide a useful answer if you have limited storage space, have the misfortune to live in an area where the hay crop fails due to drought or excessive rain, or just need a convenient form of fiber to feed while on the road. And if you're worried about the quality of your hay, processed forages can provide a consistent, guaranteed level of nutrients--which can make ration balancing a good deal simpler.

Making Hay . . . Cubes

Hay cubes (sometimes called roughage chunks) and pellets simply are hay that has been chopped coarsely (or finely) and formed (with the addition of a binder) into scoopable, baggable pieces. They're more convenient to move around than baled hay, and they have the advantage of a guaranteed nutritional content that is posted on the bag so you know exactly what you're delivering in terms of vitamins and minerals. Hay cubes and pellets come in a variety of sizes and textures, from soft and crumbly to quite hard, and they can be all-alfalfa hay, all-grass hay, a mixture of the two, or even hay mixed with other products such as ground corn cobs.

Most pelleted fiber feeds are not pure hay, but what those working in the feed industry call "complete feeds"--products combining forage with grain or grain products and designed to supply complete nutrition in one bag. Complete feeds might be the ultimate in convenience, but they generally won't supply enough energy for horses doing significant amounts of work (with the exception of a couple of brands formulated specifically for racehorses). They also vary quite a lot in terms of the amount of fiber they deliver, and because they are quickly consumed by most horses, they don't really satisfy the pervasive urge to chew. As a result, your fences and barn fittings might suffer from an increased concentration of toothmarks. But complete feeds can have a place in the diet of a horse with respiratory difficulties, and they can be useful in circumstances when good-quality hay is hard to obtain.

Many horse owners feed a complete feed in addition to hay, as a low-energy alternative to traditional grains. This sort of diet is one to consider if you have horses in your barn which are laid up due to injury or illness, retirees, easy-keeping broodmares who are "open" or in their first eight months of pregnancy, or horses for whom a low-energy diet is an advantage (for example, horses used in therapeutic riding programs).

Hay cubes can be made from sun-cured hay, or from hay cut "wet" and dehydrated under controlled conditions in the plant. Valerie Phillips, a sales representative for Canadian Agra Products, an Ontario-based company that distributes its brands of hay cubes throughout the eastern and midwestern United States as well as Canada, described the manufacturing process. "We contract with growers within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of our plant in Kincardine, Ontario, who have fields either of straight alfalfa or an alfalfa/timothy mix. All of the fields are inspected on a regular basis. We cut when the alfalfa is pre-bloom, for maximum leaf retention, which means maximum nutrient retention. Then, within 12 to 20 hours, the hay is chopped and blown into forage wagons and shipped to the plant at 60% moisture content.

"We test each batch for protein and nutrient content--the higher protein hays go to the cattle market, while the lower ones we keep as more desirable for our horse products. Then the chopped hay is dumped into receivers and sent through metal detectors, to ensure there is no foreign debris."

Once this process is complete, the hay is sent to the dryers, where it is dehydrated to a consistent 12% moisture level at low temperatures, a technique that ensures the vitamin content remains high. Finally, the hay is mixed with a binder.

"Horse people are very conscious about additives, so we make sure the binders are all-natural," said Phillips. "Our mixed hays are bound with pea protein, made from chick peas; the mixture is heated and compressed a little, and the moisture adjusted so the result is a firm cube which won't fall apart. For alfalfa hays, the binder is usually a very small amount of bentonite (a clay that is often found in equine mineral supplements)."

From the cuber, the hay cubes go to a cooler/dryer bin to cool down, then to a special storage facility with an aerated floor, which preserves the cubes well throughout the winter. Phillips noted, "The cubes are bagged to order, not ahead of time. But once bagged, if they're stored properly (in dry conditions and away from extreme heat), they'll keep for one to two years with no loss of chlorophyll or nutrients."

This quality is one that makes many farm managers keep an emergency supply of hay cubes on hand in case of a hay crop failure.

One of the chief advantages of hay cubes, according to Phillips, is the standardized nutrition they deliver. "We do complete analyses of our entire crop each year, so we can provide guaranteed content. It does vary a little from year to year, so we re-do the feed tags annually. But our alfalfa cubes are usually about 15% crude protein (minimum), while our alfalfa/timothy cubes are 13% and our Alfa-maize (a mixture of alfalfa and whole-plant ground corn) is 12%."

One other advantage of Canadian Agra Products, Phillips pointed out, is that the alfalfa hay is all grown in Ontario, where blister beetles do not exist.

Blister beetles, any of six species of the genus Epicauta, can inhabit alfalfa and clover fields from the central through the southern United States. They exude a highly caustic substance called cantharidin, which can cause inflammation and blistering of the skin within hours of contact; if ingested, the cantharidin is absorbed and rapidly excreted in the urine, causing inflammation of the digestive and urinary tracts. Horses seem to be particularly susceptible to blister beetles and can suffer severe poisoning from even a few beetles, alive or dead, lurking in a bale of hay. Decreased feed intake, frequent drinking and urination, colic, and depression are signs of blister beetle poisoning. At its worst, blister beetle poisoning can cause horses to suffer severe pain, shock, and death within a few hours.

When selecting a hay cube or pellet, remember that hard, crunchy products are generally preferred by horses, but if you are feeding a toothless octogenarian or a convalescent, you easily can soak hay cubes or pellets in water to make them easier to consume. Soaked or unsoaked, processed hay products have a significant advantage over regular hay for an allergic horse: they are many times less dusty than even the highest-quality baled forage (even so, be sure to sort out the fines in the bottom of the bag). Some horses with chronic heaves can become almost symptomless when, along with other management changes to minimize dust, hay is eliminated from the diet in favor of hay cubes or pellets.

What is the down side of processed hay products? There really are only three disadvantages. The first is that, unlike a hay bale you can crack open and examine, it can be difficult to assess the quality of the forage used to make the product. Despite the guaranteed analysis on the feed tag, it's impossible to tell whether weeds, dirt, or other contaminants have been incorporated into the cubes or pellets. The best advice is to buy from a reputable company, and look for pieces of a uniform color and texture that have a pleasant smell.

This brings us to the second disadvantage of processed hay products: they usually are considerably more expensive than ordinary hay. However, it's very true in the feed business that you get what you pay for, so it might be worth passing over the most inexpensive hay cube or pellet you see in favor of a better-quality feed. The difference will be worth it in terms of peace of mind.

Finally, the convenient shape of hay cubes or pellets can in itself be a disadvantage. Because these take less time to chew than regular hay, horses generally consume them faster. Be prepared for the possibility of boredom-based destructive behavior as a result.

Haylage: Controlled Fermentation

The other alternative form of hay is usually called haylage, or sometimes "horsehage." This is hay (often alfalfa, or a mix with a high alfalfa content) harvested at its nutritive best, then stored in anaerobic conditions while still at a relatively high moisture content. It often is treated as a dry silage--that is, the hay is baled as usual (often in large round bales), then coated in heavy plastic to encourage fermentation. If properly done, it ensures that the hay retains its nutrients much better than it would have if sun-cured. It maintains high levels of protein, carbohydrates, carotene, and many vitamins better than any other method of feed preservation. (Because haylage is not exposed to the sun, however, it is lower in vitamin D than naturally cured hay.)

When anaerobic conditions are maintained correctly while making haylage, molds, yeasts, and aerobic bacteria perish while anaerobic micro-organisms present in the hay ferment the soluble carbohydrates, producing lactic and volatile fatty acids. In fact, the process mimics what happens in the horse's own cecum and colon when forage is digested. The acids inhibit microbial growth, eventually stopping the fermentation after several weeks. The moisture content of the feed must be monitored carefully, as too high or too low a level can allow excess heat to be generated (which results in spoilage), or the growth of yeasts, molds, or toxic bacteria.

Good haylage should have a clean, pleasant acidic odor, be uniform in color--green to brownish--and feel moist, but not mushy or slimy. Dark brown, caramelized, or charred-looking or -smelling feed is a sign that excessive heating occurred during fermentation, and black patches indicate it is rotten; haylage like this obviously should not be fed. Likewise, anything with an unpleasant or sharp odor should be tossed out. Because the plastic covering protects the haylage from microbial growth, any feed in plastic that has been ripped or punctured should be discarded; once you open a package, feed the haylage within a couple of days at maximum.

Botulism, a swift-striking, painful, and potentially fatal disease, is a particular risk with improperly baled or stored haylage; it can brew in any bale with a pH over 4.5. Clostridium botulinum, the organism that causes botulism, is an anaerobic bacterium that thrives in moist, airtight environments such as sealed haylage bales. In recent years, several cases of botulism on horse farms have been traced to improperly produced or stored haylage (see "Canadian Botulism Outbreak" in the March, 1997 issue).

In light of this, some researchers have gone so far as to recommend that haylage never be fed to horses. But industry trends suggest that the use of haylage products on horse farms is likely to increase, not decrease, in the future. If you intend to feed haylage, we suggest these two precautions: first, vaccinate your herd against botulism (this is standard practice in some parts of North America, but not in others); and second, test each and every bale of haylage with a pH strip, available from your agricultural extension agent or feed store, to ensure that it is sufficiently acidic to prevent the growth of the organism. Healthy haylage should have a pH of 3.5 to 4.5; discard any bales that measure over 4.5.

Despite the greater care haylage requires, many horse people prefer it to traditional sun-cured bales, citing its extremely good palatability (most horses, once familiar with it, strongly prefer it to regular hay), its superior nutritive value, its almost dust-free qualities (making it another good choice for a horse with COPD), and the lack of wastage. Because its moisture content is higher than that of hay, however, it might take two to three times as much haylage to replace each flake of hay.

In most circumstances, regular baled hay is likely to remain the staple of the equine diet. But the hay alternatives are proving themselves increasingly useful options. As Phillips observes, "The hay cube market is still in its infancy. I can see it going in all sorts of directions."

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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