Feeding Forage, Part 2: Selecting Forage

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Written By Dr. Kris Hiney

Last month we discussed how much hay you should actually tuck away before winter. You don’t want to run out before that first cutting rolls around in June! But what about the quality of that hay? This month we will talk about what to look for in a quality hay; what things you don’t have to be so strict about in terms of quality, and what makes the most economical sense.

CuttingsMany people prefer to use only one certain cutting of hay, but that largely is irrelevant provided the hay is overall of good quality. Many choose to avoid first cutting hay, but it is certainly acceptable to feed horses. One of the difficulties of first crop hay may be a larger weed content, as these plants may grow more readily at the beginning of the growing season. However, if there are little to no weeds in the hay field, this may make little difference. It is true that first crop hay may be more difficult to put up due to weather conditions. Typically it rains more at the beginning of the growing season, so there is more chance that the hay will be rained on. Certainly rain can lower the nutrition value of the hay from 40-50%. However, careful inspection of the hay will allow you to determine if your hay has been rained upon. Hay that is grown in the hottest part of the months may result in more stems and less leaves as the plant grows rapidly. This can also lower the nutritional value of the hay. Later cuttings when it is cooler may have more leaves, less weeds, and perhaps less chance of being rained upon (depending on the whims of the weather). However, your best guide is to simply inspect the hay for quality, rather than automatically simply paying more for later cuttings of hay.

One of the first criteria in selecting hay is to determine how old the plant actually was when it was harvested. The older the plant is (whether it is a legume or a grass) the more fiber content is present. Translation – the less digestible it actually will be by your horse, and the lower the energy value of the hay, and the more hay you will “waste”. Now bear in mind this may not necessarily be a bad thing, especially if you have mature horses who are easy keepers. Previously we had stated that your horses ideally eat 2% of their body weight in hay per day. But if you are feeding at that level and your horse is fat, one viable option in lowering their calorie intake is to lower the energy density of their hay by choosing more mature hays. If you want to get the most bang for your buck, you would want to select younger hays. For grass hays, you want to examine the plants for the presence of seed heads. This definitely indicates a mature plant and one that will have more fiber and less relative feed value. Seed heads that are just beginning to show through the sheath are acceptable, but if the entire seed head is visible, the plant is very mature. Also look for a color change in grass hays. As the plant matures, they change from a bright green appearance to a more dusky grey. For legumes, look for flowers. For example, alfalfa develops purple flowers with an advanced vegetative state. While that field of pretty purple might be nice to drive by and look at, it means less nutrition for your horse!


The leaves of the plant contain the most nutritional value for the horse, so look for hays with greater leaf content. In grass hays, the maturity of the plant will definitely influence leaf content, as you will get more proportional stem as the plant matures. The same is true for legumes, which will get proportionally more stemmy with advancing maturity. The handling of the hay will also influence the overall leafiness. If fields have to be raked excessively (usually to aid with drying after rain), more leaf loss will occur. If the hay was allowed to dry excessively (below 12% prior to baling and storing) leaf shatter may occur resulting in a significant loss of nutrient content. Legumes are much more prone to leaf loss as the leaves are held much less firmly to the plant than in grass hays. Even handling of the hay post storing, such as transport, feeding etc. can result in great leaf loss in legume hays.

TextureWhen examining hays, it is important to actually get your hands on the hay. Horses prefer to eat hay that is softer and more pliable. This does directly relate to nutritive value, as tougher, stemmier hay will be higher in fiber content. A good test is to grasp several pieces of hay together and twist them. If the stems break and shatter, the less acceptable they will be by the horse. This can also indicate the hay was dried too much before baling.
ColorIdeally good hay has a bright green color. This not only reflects when the hay was harvested (especially for grass hays) but also how long the hay has been stored, if it was stored properly or if it was rained upon. Hay that has been exposed to sunlight will be faded or bleached to a yellowish appearance. Many vitamins are light sensitive, so expose to sun will decrease the nutritive content of the hay. However, don’t judge a bale too harshly by its cover. Open the bale up, if it is still green inside, it will still be a quality hay for the horse. Hay that has a grayish cast or is darker than normal may be moldy or may have been rained on. Rain will make hay have a more discolored appearance and again indicates a lower quality hay.
Free from… 

Here is where you really need to pay attention to your hay. Inspect the hay for the presence of unwanted items. Weeds can not only lower the acceptability of the hay and the nutritional content, but can be seriously detrimental to your horse. Many weeds are toxic to horses or can cause physical damage through ingesting sharp barbs or nettles. It is generally not worth the risk to feed weedy hay, unless you are an expert at species identification! Also look for debris or trash. Normal hay fields don’t contain twine, pop cans, beer bottles etc. This may mean your hay actually came from a ditch or roadway. All of these can cause damage to your horse. While the occasional snake or mouse might be no problem (hey it happens), be especially vigilant for bugs, especially in alfalfa hay. Blister beetles are highly toxic to horses and ingestion of just a few can cause death. Last but not least, look for mold. You may find dark discolored areas, or patches of white fuzzy mold. Moldy hay should never be fed to horses. One easy test is to just smell your hay. It should have a pleasant, fragrant smell. A musty smell indicates mold. Break the hay open and slap it. If fine dust rises into the air, avoid it as well. Commonly hay that has been baled to wet (over 20% moisture) will mold in the barn. If you happen to have the fun job of individually unloading small square bales of hay, toss aside any that feel excessively heavy to you. They are probably wet, and you don’t want to store those in your barn.

Remember, any type of grass or legume hay can be good hay for your horse (assuming they are species horses eat), provided it is good quality. Don’t pay a premium value for your hay unless you have a chance to inspect it yourself. Don’t be afraid to turn away substandard hay. It is in the best interest of your horse.


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