Horses are natural grazers. Their stomachs are designed to process small amounts of forage constantly throughout the day. However, in these days of urbanization and loss of pasture land, most horse owners have to supplement the amount of grass their horse eats with hay. To ensure proper functioning of the equine digestive system, horses need to eat a minimum of one percent of their body weight in long-stem forage (either grass or hay) every day.
Good quality hay can provide most, if not all, of the nutrients a horse needs. Hay can be grass hay (timothy, for example) or legume (alfalfa). Legume hays are generally higher in protein content than grass hays, although due to the higher ratio of calcium to phospherous, legume hays should not be fed as the only source of forage to young, growing horses. Grass/legume mixes are an excellent choice of forage for horses.
On this and the following page, you will find information about selecting hay, different types of hay bales, testing hay and feeding hay.
Types of Hay
Farmers produce hay in a variety of ways. Depending on your storage facilities you can choose from the following:
The most common, of course, is the square bale. These are actually rectangular and can weigh anywhere from 50-70 lbs. These are both easy to handle and to store. They are bound with either baling twine, a very strong multi-ply synthetic twine, or wire. Some horse owners prefer baling twine over wire because of the multiple uses that baling twine can be put to around the farm and stable!
Square bales should be stored under cover, out of the wind and rain. They should not be laid directly on the ground, but should be raised up (on pallets, for example) to allow airflow and to prevent moisture being absorbed from the ground. For fire safety reasons, hay should be stored in a separate building, away from the stables.
Round bales weigh anywere from 800-1200 lbs. Because of this, the single horse owner won't usually use round bales, especially since you need a tractor to be able to move them. They are popular, however, in large horse facilities where they can be placed in a pasture and a number of horses can eat from them.
Round bales should also be stored off the ground and covered so the rain doesn't get to them.
Hay cubes are made from coarsely chopped alfalfa, or grass/alfalfa mixes. They generally come in bags weighing about 20 lbs and are therefore easy to store. They are more expensive to feed than baled hay, but there is less waste. I tend to feel that hay cubes are too hard, but having said that, I've never found a horse that won't eat them with relish!
Silage and Haylage
Hay that is harvested and stored with a moisture content of 50-70 per cent is called silage. Although this is popular as a forage for cattle, the low PH content, the high potential for molds and the risk of colic, make it unsuitable for horses.
Big bale haylage is made from legumes which are allowed to wilt to 40-60 percent moisture content and then bagged. When feeding haylage to horses, it is important that the haylage be stored correctly, so that mold doesn't form. The haylage should be used quickly (within seven days) of the bag being opened.
In the UK, bagged forage, with a moisture content between 35 and 45 percent, has been popular in recent years when hay has been hard to find.
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