Feeding Forage, Part 1: Figuring Your Forage Needs

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Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

As this is the time of the year that hay fields are being cut and the days are already getting shorter, it is time to be filling your barns or sheds with hay for the upcoming year. This month we will learn how to estimate your hay needs so that you don’t find yourself short come April or May.

To begin, we will review some of the information covered previously. The best method to estimate hay needs is based on your horse’s body weight. If you haven’t weighed your horse yet, head out to the barn with your weight tape or your string! (See Equine Energy Requirements) Using our forage feeding rules (See Rules to Feed By), we know that at a minimum your horse needs to consume 1% of its body weight in forage per day. Now that figure is actually on what we call a dry matter basis. Most hay will run on average 85% dry matter. What that means is 15% of the hay is actually water. So let’s walk through our first calculations. Let’s assume for simplicity sake that your horse is 1000 lbs. Therefore he needs to consume a minimum of 10 lbs of feed per day on a dry matter basis. Well, what is that if I actually weight it out? Divide the amount of hay by the % dry matter (10 lbs/0.85=11.8 lbs). To finish out, at a minimum your horse will consume 11.8 lbs x 365 days/year or 4,294 lbs of hay. That means you need to figure that for your one horse you should purchase about 2 tons of hay.

Of course, that is assuming you are feeding forage at the minimum requirement. However, as we have discussed previously, feeding forage at a minimum may not be the best for the gut health of your horse and certainly for his mental health as well. In addition, horses that do not receive adequate forage to satisfy their need to chew develop very bad habits such as wood chewing, tail chewing and even cribbing. A better idea, at least where your horse is concerned, is to feed at 2% of your horses body weight per day. So with our same 1000 lbs horse, our equation is now 1000 *.02 = 20 lbs of hay/.85 (for dry matter adjustment) * 365 days. That works out to be 8,588 lbs or 4.3 tons of hay. Now that sounds a little more reasonable.

But what if your horses are outside and you are feeding them free choice hay? Horses can consume quite a bit more hay if offered, especially if their energy needs go up due to work, lactation, or cold weather, or if the hay is especially palatable. Horses can easily consume 3% of their body weight per day. That works out to a need for 12,882 lbs or 6.4 tons for your 1000 lb horse if you allow your horse full access to feed. Would there be a reason to do so? Absolutely. Many times the easiest and most economical ways to feed horses is to feed them round bales. Because there is less labor involved, round bales are often the cheapest way to buy hay. They are especially practical if you are feeding large groups of horses housed outdoors. However, unless you lock your horses away from the round bale feeder, they may certainly consume the upper limits of forage intake. For that reason, many horses can get quite fat if fed on good quality round bales.

Another consideration when purchasing hay is potential wastage. Horses will eat more than necessary if offered and become fat. They are also quite good at pulling hay from feeders and trampling it into the ground. With round bales, you can assume that 30% of your bale will be wasted via horses and exposure to the elements. Be sure to include this wastage when calculating your hay needs. You should also have a proper storage site that protects hay from sunlight and rain. Hay should not be set directly on the ground, as this can result in molding of the bottom layer. Many people try to cover hay stores with plastic or tarps to prevent wastage from rain. However, frequently the opposite is experienced. Plastic is easily punctured and allows water in, but the covering may prevent water from evaporating and only serve to further the wastage you were trying to avoid. Look at your feeding systems as well. Solid sided and bottomed feeders prevent most wastage, but horses should not be overfed, as water in feeders due to rain will result in more wastage of the hay remaining in the feeders. Never feed horses hay on the ground, as a very large percentage will be lost due to trampling, soiling on the hay etc. Further, this will result in a greater chance of parasitism through fecal contamination of hay.

How much does hay weigh?  

As you can see, all of our estimates for hay needs have been based on weight. Ideally, this is how you will negotiate the price for hay as well. You should try to buy your hay on a tonnage basis, rather than by bale. For example, small square bales of a similar size can vary from as light as 35 lbs (loosely packed) or as high as 100 lbs! If your hay supplier wants a per bale price, make sure you weigh several bales (7-10) to get an accurate estimate of what you are truly paying for the hay. If you don’t have a scale for the hay, just bring a bathroom scale, hop on, and then weigh yourself holding the hay bales. Just subtract your own weight (you don’t have to have anybody look!) from the total, and repeat several more times. If you are buying hay in large square bales, round bales or by the truckload, the producer has typically already weighed the hay on a farm scale.

Buy by the BulkIdeally contract with your hay producer for enough hay to meet your needs (which we have just figured out) during the growing season. If you are forced to buy hay in the winter, expect the price to go up. Also, the larger quantities you can buy, the cheaper the cost. Perhaps going together with another horse owner to purchase loads of hay could result in greater savings. A building suitable for storing large amounts of hay may save you money in the long run over years of hay purchases.Next month. What kind of hay should you buy? What should you be looking for? What is good quality hay?  

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