According to Purina Animal Nutrition, forage makes up 50-90 percent of a horse’s diet. And this usually means lots and lots and lots of hay. Because it’s such a big part of your horse’s diet, it’s SO important to feed good quality hay. We know this, right? So how do we tell the difference between hay that is quality vs. all of the other stuff out there?
As winter approaches, hay becomes harder to come by. So this is a good time to remind yourself what to look for when purchasing winter hay.
“As nutritionists and horse owners, we put a big emphasis on the quality of hay we feed. The most important factor determining hay quality is the stage of plant maturity at time of harvest,” says Gina M. Fresquez, Equine Technical Services at Purina Animal Nutrition. “Young, immature plants contain more nutrients than older, stemmier plants. Though after hay is harvested, the level of hay quality goes beyond the age of the plant at harvest as there are more factors to consider.”
If you don’t hold an advanced degree in animal science or agriculture, how do you determine hay health? Fresquez tells equine owners and caretakers to watch these six indicators:
- High leaf-to-stem ratio
Think about the leafy greens you eat. You likely prefer greens with leaves rather than just stems. The same is true for your horse. “Look for more flat leaves in the hay and fewer round stems; this indicates the plant was less mature when cut,” says Fresquez. “More leaves typically mean higher digestibility and nutrient content for your horse.”
- Small diameter stems
Stems smaller in diameter or finer are also indicators of higher quality. Small stems mean the plant was less mature when cut. To test stem size, Fresquez recommends grabbing a handful of hay and giving it a squeeze. “Good quality hay is soft and pliable, and feels good in your hand,” says Fresquez. “If it feels like you’re squeezing a handful of sticks, it is not a good choice of hay t
o feed your horse.”
- Few seed heads or blooms
No matter the species of plant, hay with little to no seed heads or blooms indicates a younger, early maturity plant, and thus a higher quality hay. For example, timothy should be cut in the pre-bloom or early-bloom stage when you see little to no seed heads; and alfalfa (for horses) should be cut at early to mid-bloom stage.
- Fresh smell and appearance
Avoid musty, moldy or off-setting smelling hay, because it can reduce palatability and indicate poor quality. “Good quality hay should have a fresh cut smell and appearance.”
Hay should be primarily made up of the harvested forages. Fresquez recommends looking for a clean forage with little to no dust. Even if most of the hay is high quality, hays containing dirt, mold, weeds, trash or other foreign materials indicate poorer quality hay and may be unfit to feed to horses.
Good quality hay should be bright green in color with little fading. A bleached, yellow, brown or black color may indicate aged hay, mold or poor storage conditions.
“Storage conditions and age have a significant effect on vitamin content of hays,” says Fresquez. “Many vitamins, such as vitamins A and E, are not stable over time and lose biological activity. After approximately six months, almost all vitamin A and E activity levels are lost.” Exposure to heat, sunlight and rain will speed up this process.
What to do when healthy hay is scarce.
What should you do when good quality hay isn’t available, besides stressing and completely freaking out? Says Frequez, “When quality hay is scarce or too costly, you may need to compensate for poorer quality hay. In some cases, increasing the amount of feed to provide calories and nutrients not provided by lesser quality hay may be adequate to meet your horse’s needs. However, in other situations you can replace some hay in the horse’s diet with a feed designed for that purpose. (Purina offers such feeds, which are known as “complete feeds”. Available brands include: Purina® Equine Junior®, Equine Adult®, Equine Senior®, and Omolene #400 Complete Advantage Horse Feed). Complete Advantage offer built-in forage for situations requiring a replacement for some or all hay in a horse’s diet.
Edited press release.