Alternatives to Baled Hay for Horses

Alternatives to Baled Hay for Horses

Hay cubes and pellets are simply hay that has been chopped coarsely or finely and formed into scoopable, baggable pieces.

Photo: The Horse Staff

Though regular baled hay is the mainstay of equine diets across North America, it’s not the only forage option. Hay also can be pressed into cubes, chopped and processed into pellets, or fermented as silage or “haylage.”

If your horse suffers from chronic respiratory allergies (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.

Hay cubes and pellets are simply hay that has been chopped coarsely or finely and formed into scoopable, baggable pieces. They’re often more convenient to move around than baled hay and have the advantage of a guaranteed nutritional content (posted on the bag) so you’ll know exactly what you’re delivering in terms of nutrients.

Hay cubes and pellets come in a variety of sizes and textures, from soft and crumbly to quite hard, and they might be all-alfalfa, all-grass hay, a mixture of the two, or even hay mixed with other products such as ground corn cobs. Horses generally prefer hard, crunchy products, but if you are feeding a toothless senior, for example, you can easily soak hay cubes or pellets in a bit of water to make them easier to consume.

Soaked or unsoaked, these processed hay products have a significant advantage over regular hay for an allergic horse: They are often less dusty than even the highest-quality baled forage (even so, be sure to sort out the small particles 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.

The downside of processed hay products? The first is that, unlike a hay bale you can crack open and examine, assessing the quality of the forage used to make the product can be difficult. 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 with a pleasant smell.

This brings us to the second disadvantage of processed hay products: They are usually considerably more expensive than ordinary hay. However, it’s very true in the feed business that you get what you pay for, so consider passing over the most inexpensive hay cube or pellet you see in favor of a better-quality feed that likely will have a higher price tag. 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 they take less time to chew than regular hay, horses generally consume them faster—and might be left with a dissatisfied chewing urge. Be prepared for the possibility of boredom-based destructive behaviors as a result.

The other alternative form of hay is usually called haylage. This is hay harvested at its nutritive best, then stored in anaerobic conditions while still at a relatively high moisture content. It is often treated as a dry silage—that is, the hay is baled as usual (often in large round bales) and then coated in heavy plastic to encourage fermentation. If properly done, ensiling 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 microorganisms 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 might allow excess heat to be generated (which results in spoilage), or the growth of yeasts, molds, and 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 rot. Haylage like this should obviously not be fed. Likewise, anything with an unpleasant or sharp odor should be tossed out. Healthy haylage should have a pH of 3.5 to 5.0 (this can easily be tested with a pH strip). Botulism, a potentially toxic anaerobic bacterium, is a particular risk with haylage. It can brew in any bale with a pH over 4.5. 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 do open a package, feed the haylage within a couple of days at maximum.

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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