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Making the Most of Poor Quality Hay for Horses


Dr. Martin Adams, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Round hay bales wait inside a storage barn. The quality of hay can vary greatly from year to year, and even between cuttings within the same year. As plants mature they develop more cell wall or fiber, and this fiber becomes less digestible due to increasing lignin content. You will likely notice having to provide more feed than usual to your horse when you have a lower quality hay. Horses are not able to consume as much poor quality hay compared to better quality hay as the higher fiber levels reduce intake, and the poor quality hay provides less calories. Horses are also more likely to suffer from impaction colic when they are consuming poor quality forage. For that reason, it’s important to provide plenty of fresh, clean water from an insulated or heated water source or provide extra salt or horse mineral, to encourage greater water consumption.

Hay that is moldy or dusty or containing foreign material such as poisonous plants, excessive weeds, etc. is not acceptable for horses. Determining the nutrient content of hay by visual means alone is difficult. High quality hay should have a fresh, sweet aroma, and the forage will be green, soft and leafy. If you are uncertain about the acceptability of hay for your horses, and you have 100 or more bales of hay stored for feeding, take core samples of ten to fifteen bales and submit a composited sample for analysis. Many state universities have forage laboratories that can provide an inexpensive nutrient analysis of your hay. Your area specialist at Southern States can assist you with this, as many of them have a hay probe and drill for this purpose. Good quality hay should test a minimum of 8% crude protein with an acid detergent fiber (ADF) level of less than 40% and a neutral detergent fiber (NDF) level of less than 60%.

There are several feeding options that can be used to make the most of poor quality hay. One is to provide a horse feed with plenty of calories to make up for the lower energy density of lower quality hay consumed by your horse. Southern States has horse feeds in the Southern States and Legends lines with 6%, 8% and 12% fat. Fat contains 2.25 times more calories than other nutrients and allows you to feed less than a lower fat feed, or to provide more calories with the same amount of higher fat feed with greater calorie density. If you have plenty of hay available for your horse, but you know the hay quality is not very good, consider switching to a horse feed with a higher fat content.

The second option to consider with poor quality hay, or when you need to limit the amount of hay due to limited storage space, is to substitute a "hay replacer" feed for some of the daily amount of hay fed. Normally, horses need a minimum of 10 pounds of hay per 1,000 pounds of body weight to maintain proper digestive function. Southern States has horse feeds available that allow you to "stretch" your hay feeding by replacing some of the fiber normally available from hay.

High fiber or "hay replacer" horse feeds that Southern States has available include Southern States Hay Stretcher, Legends Senior and Performance Low Carb Formula Pelleted. These "fiber-based" feeds can be fed more safely at higher levels than conventional "grain-based" horse feeds. You can reduce the daily amount of hay fed by 50% by replacing the hay with one of these high fiber feeds. Highly digestible fiber sources include soybean hulls, alfalfa meal and shredded beet pulp.

The third option is to replace some of your poor quality hay with a higher quality source of forage. Feeding 0.50% of your horse’s body weight daily (four to six pounds for a horse weighing 800 to 1,200 pounds, respectively) with a high quality forage source provides more calories than low quality hay. Southern States has chopped and cubed alfalfa, mixed and grass forage products available for horses.


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