Written By: Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota
Listed below you will find some of the characteristics of hay that should be used to evaluate and select hay for horses.
- CONTENT: percent of grass and legumes in the hay. In general, legumes (like alfalfa and clover) have higher protein content than grasses. Fiber from grasses is more digestible than that of alfalfa and other legumes at the same stage of maturity. In many cases, pure alfalfa hay has more protein than the horse needs. Although this will not affect the horse's health, it will increases water requirements and cause more urination that is high in ammonia. Young horses that are developing have higher protein requirements, and alfalfa hay is an excellent supplement for them.
- NUTRITION: plants have more fiber and less protein as they mature. Indicators of maturity are flowers for legumes, and seed heads for grasses. Thick stems in both cases are indicators of maturity, remember, leaves have more protein and digestible energy and less fiber than stems. Usually, more leaves also means softer hay. Grasses harvested at early boot stage (when the seed head is just starting to form), have excellent fiber digestibility and energy availability.
- TOUCH: horses' mouth, lips and tongue, are very soft; hence, softer hay will be consumed more readily, and there will be less waste. If the hay feels rough to you, it will feel rough to your horse.
- SMELL: sweet smell is attractive to people and horses, and it is also a good indication of having readily available energy (sugar). Much like soft touch, a sweet smell is an incentive for the horse to eat the hay and get its full nutritional value.
- COLOR: Green is very appealing and a good insurance of quality, but don't get too hung up on color. Bleached color indicates exposure to sunlight or rain and very likely oxidation of vitamin A, but other very essential nutrients are still there! If in doubt, send a sample for a nutritional analysis. Be sure to require an equine analysis.
- CROP: plants that grow under cooler temperatures build more digestible fiber. Therefore, 1st crop hay may have more fiber, and the fiber will be easier for the horse to digest and use. Just knowing whether it is 1st, 2nd or 3rd crop does not predict nutrient content. The stage of maturity at which the hay was cut is the foundation of its nutritional value.
- MOLD: mold is detrimental if the horse inhales it, plus it has the potential to be toxic and/or upset the digestive system as well. Before buying a truckload of hay, be sure to inspect the inside of at least one bale. If the hay has been stored inside and is not moldy, then the risk of it getting mold is very low. Do not buy hay that is moldy, as it will only get worse. The use of propionic acid is safe for horses and can be used to prevent molding of hay at time of bailing.
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