BUYING HAY … SOME ‘HOW-TO’
Consider these 10 vital key areas when looking to buy the best
forage for your horses:
1. Which hay is
There are two broad categories of forage: legumes and grass
Legumes include plants such as peas and beans, alfalfa and clover,
note that all legumes have seedpods.
Timothy, orchard grass, fescue and brome
grass are a few examples of Grass hays, all of which have long narrow leaves, jointed stems and bear
seed-like fruit. Regional availability will be one aspect to consider when choosing; Bermuda grass thrives in
warm climates such as the southeast, alfalfa and wheatgrass are typically grown in the plains states, and
timothy, tall fescue and orchard grass are prevalent in the northeast and the northwest. Mixing a combination
of legumes and grass hay is a popular choice but pay more attention to the nutritional value than price
alone. Legumes are more nutrient packed by volume that hays but pay attention to the higher
protein and feed according to your horses needs. The crude level of protein in alfalfa ranges from twice to
four times as much as typical grass hay. Too much protein can add metabolic stress on the body and some
horses become fat or overly energetic.
2. Plant maturity
Plant maturity influences the nutrient content and quality of hay
more than anything else. More nutrients are present in the leaves of immature grass. As the plant matures,
reproduction issues such as stem elongation and seed production become the primary focus and less energy is
invested in leaf production.
So, when a plant is young there is more leaf per stem and
therefore more digestible fiber. Once a plant has gone to seed that is where the nutrients are stored. The
stems become higher in indigestible fiber with very little nutritional value left.
"When a plant is young, there is more leaf per stem and more
digestible fiber," says Freeman. "Once the plant is mature, all of the nutrients are in the seed head. At
this point the stem’s purpose is to support the seed and there’s a higher level of indigestible fiber and
very little nutritional value in the stem.
The National Research Council’s guide
Nutrient Requirements of Horses,
timothy cut in early bloom contains 9.6 percent protein and has 830 calories per pound, whereas a late-bloom
cut contains 6.9 percent protein and has 720 calories per pound.
Farmers have a tendency to wait until the seed head has fully
emerged before cutting for several reasons; early cutting can damage the plant and negatively affect future
harvests, allowing full growth and cutting later increases the harvest and keeps the price
What you will want to look for small seed heads that are just
beginning to emerge from the leaves around it, this indicates that the cutting took place in the
For good-quality legumes, such as alfalfa, the cut should be in
the late-bud stage, once you see many flowers the hay is over-mature. `
3. What other factors influence the
nutrient values of hay?
Leafiness: Leaves contain about 90 percent of the plant’s protein
so the leafier the better. Premium legume hay will have twice as many leaves as stems. Grass hays have leaves
that grow along the stem so they are less obvious.
Color: High quality is generally dark green and grass hay that is
stored well a light to medium green. It would be nice if this rule of thumb was always right but there are
conditions that will cause a contradiction causing color to not be a reliable indicator. Hay that is
rain-damaged and early cut may be off-color but its nutritional value will still be high.
A bale that is yellow throughout can
indicate an over-mature state when cut, thus being much less nutritious, yet some yellow is usually fine to
feed and it’s likely that it was just a bit sun-bleached during the drying process. Light to medium brown hay
may indicate too much moisture was present when it was baled and stored. Mold is black or powdery white and
indicates that wet hay was baled, perhaps after a heavy dew or rain. Mold is not always obvious
from the outside of the bale, it is advisable to cut into a bale or two and inspect the center flakes, and be
sure to give it a good sniff! Mold is dangerous to horses and while they will normally avoid it, hunger is a
strong motivator and they will give in. They need you to on top of quality assurance as the results of eating
moldy hay may be colic or a respiratory ailment.
Smell: Quality has a fresh aroma that is pleasant and almost
sweet. If you notice pungency or an acrid smell it could be either heat damage or mold. Poor quality hay may
smell musty or dry.
Texture: Ideally, hay should be somewhat soft with fine
Purity: Trash, weeds, wire, debris, dead insects and animals can
all end up in a bale of hay of inferior quality. Be sure to check to see if the farmers you buy from are
vigilant in this regard. Weeds may not lower the nutritional value of the hay but that depends upon the
species. It is advisable to request a test bale or two prior to making a large purchase, in this way you can
evaluate quality and give your horse a taste test. The presence of blister beetles can be deadly dangerous to
your horse because they produce a toxin called cantharidin which can cause blisters and sores in the
gastrointestinal tract that will cause colic and in large doses may be fatal. Since they are attracted to the
flowers, seeing smaller bud heads will bring confidence they are not present.
4. How to determine your horse’s
nutrient level needs.
Work-load is a key factor. Horses are used for recreation or
moderate work can usually maintain their weight on good-quality hay. If your horse spends much time pasture
grazing average-quality hay is usually sufficient.
However, some factors can affect nutrition needs requiring above
average quality. Pregnancy and lactation, and youth are all times requiring extra protein. High-performance
requires more fuel and energy as well.
5. Determine the nutrient level of
the forage you plan to feed.
There are laboratories that will test samples for you and while
this process may not be doable prior to buying a load, it is worthwhile to have the nutritional content
analyzed later in order to tailor your horse’s diet accordingly and evaluate the quality coming from that
provider for future purchase reference.
Acid detergent fiber (ADF), which determines digestibility and
neutral detergent fiber (NDF), which measures total fiber are two very informative factors. In example, hay
with a high NDF number, (high in indigestible fiber) will require your horse to eat more to gain the needed
nutrients; it is possible that their appetite will not be big enough to fully nourish themselves on hay of
this nature. Both ADF and NDF factor in the amount of lignin, a component of indigestible plant fiber so in
both cases the lower the number the better. Crude protein levels decrease in direct correlation with the
amount of lignin present. RFV, relative feed value, can be helpful when comparing hays, over 100 is generally
considered good hay.
Find a certified lab and more sampling tips by going to the
National Forage Testing Association Web site at www.foragetesting.org.
6. How hay is
The forage is mower cut. Some machines condition with rollers that
break stems to spur drying time which minimizes the formation of mold. There is an alternative chemical
conditioning process some farmers use to speed drying and prevent the loss of leaves by over drying. Moisture
in the plant must be reduced on an average of 60% before being safely baled and stored.
Swathing grass (cut and left as a layer over
the soil to dry for one to three days) is the normal procedure for drying prior to baling, if the hay becomes
wet with dew it is usually spread out or turned over with a tedder to help the process. Once dry, the grass
is raked into rows that a bale can pick up and compress into square bales ranging from forty to one hundred
pounds or large round or square bales weighing up to twelve hundred pounds. Hay fields are typically
harvested 2 to 5 times a year depending on weather conditions, some species can withstand more cuttings than
7. First cutting vs. later
Contrary to the information given in #2, the first cutting is not
necessarily the best. In order to determine which cut is actually best, you will need to familiarize yourself
with the plant species and growing season. Follow the weather closely, find out when the hay was harvested
and whether the weather subjected the hay conditions favorable to mold. If the first cut was made with few
adverse species of plants growing alongside the grass it may be preferable to later cuts, but if there were a
lot of spring weeds that took root along with the grass the later cut may be better. And yet, after first
cutting, timothy and orchard grass have very few to no seed heads, which may make the additional cuttings a
8. The pros and cons of large round
Large bales are safe but require a more judicious checking of the
condition of the hay, assuming it has been stored properly. Because of their large size and density, they are
more susceptible to mold than smaller bales. Asking if they were stored end to end or side to side is helpful
when determining the possibility of mold. End to end is the preferred method as stacking side to side will
allow more water to build up and increase the possibility of mold.
Large bales are also more susceptible to
harboring the deadly Clostridium botulinum bacterium if a rodent gets caught and putrefies inside the
bale. While this risk also exists with smaller bales, remains are more likely to be noticed
sooner, and before the hay are fed. Botulism poisoning symptoms include muscle tremors, weakness, difficulty
swallowing, in-coordination and paralysis. Vaccines should be available at your veterinarian’s
9. Hay prices and
Weather, particularly extremes can affect price and availability.
Drought or excessive rain (over long periods) can slow the growth of grass, reducing quality, and quickly
turn healthy forage into a scarce and pricey commodity. If conditions persist over a number of years, the
price of low-quality hay may reach nearly the same price as higher-quality. Always consider quantity versus
quality, lower grades may appear to be money savers but not if your horse needs to eat significantly more of
Storage and maximum
Keep your forage dry, out of direct sunlight and not in contact
with a concrete or dirt floor as both of these surfaces will cause moisture to be drawn into the bales.
Situate your bales on wood pallets or on the chaffy side to ensure adequate ventilation. Alternating the way
you stack your bales is important too. Start the bottom row with edges down and then alternate with each row.
Properly stored hay will retain sufficient nutrients for as long as two years, though the aroma and color may
begin to fade after a few months. Keeping your hay from exposure to heat, light and moisture will slow down
any loss nitrogen, vitamins, and carbohydrates due to microbes.
Keep in mind that hay prices are always changing so plan accordingly, the trend now is in an
upward swing, so if you have the storage, buy a lot and buy it early!
Take a look at an April 2011 report on hay price trends.