With hay-making going on all around, it’s time to start thinking about this winter’s stock of forage for your horse. Partially stabled horses or those on restricted grazing are fed forage all year round, but for many owners, buying forage is part of the winter prep routine.
Whether you choose hay or haylage might depend on your horse’s situation, cost and availability. If you choose hay, then a few tips and pieces of information might help you choose appropriate forage for your horse.
Hay is generally made between May and August, and might be made from a second cut from the same field. It is usually turned (tedded) as it dries to ensure thorough drying and avoid damp areas that will mould. It should be at least 82% dry matter when baled if it is not going to be artificially dried. The drier it is (the higher the dry matter) the less mould spores will grow, and the better it will store.
Hay can vary in its energy and protein content depending on when it was cut – i.e. how mature it was when harvested – and to a lesser extent, whether or not it was rained on during harvesting and the species of grass it contains. To be sure, have it analysed; something which most feed companies can organise for you, for a fee. The sugar and fructan (water soluble carbohydrate or WSC) content can vary depending on which part of the day it was cut, with potentially highest levels in the afternoon.
Maturity when harvested is the most important factor in the nutritive value of hay. Hay cut later in the season (first cut) will usually be lower in energy, WSC and protein, and higher in fibre. These are the characteristics of a more mature grass.
Putting effort into choosing the correct type of hay will make it a great deal easier for you to keep good doers slim, poor doers with enough condition and hard-working horses performing well.
If you have a good doer (a horse who maintains weight easily and is at risk of obesity) horses with EMS (equine metabolic syndrome) or prone to laminitis, choose late cut hay. Timothy would tend to be a better choice than ryegrass, but you should still analyse to be sure that WSC is under 10% and energy as low as possible.
For poor doers or hard-working horses with high energy requirements, choosing early cut hay will help maintain condition and stamina, and avoid high reliance on concentrate feed. Earlier cut hay tends to be more palatable, and intake rates are higher.
Even late cut hay might be too high in WSC and/or energy for horses with EMS or those on weight loss regimes, so you may have to soak the hay. If you are soaking for this reason, you need to soak for many hours (at least 10 hours) and ideally in tepid water to ensure adequate losses.
Some veterinarians recommend that all UK made hay should be soaked for 15 minutes to lay dust and swell mould spores, making it healthier for the respiratory system of your horse. Soaking for hygiene is particularly important for stabled horses. Soaking or steaming hay is essential for horses with Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO, used to be called COPD) and other respiratory allergies. Do not soak for longer than 15 minutes for poor doers or hard-working horses because energy and WSC will be lost.
Don’t forget that if you feed forage-only, you do need to add a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to balance your horse’s diet, making up for the shortages of essential micro-nutrients. Even the best made, early cut hay is short of minerals and vitamins for horses.