What Do You Look for When Buying Hay?

How do you decide which hay you are going to purchase for your horses?  Do you go with a local supplier or do you purchase from a hay broker?  Is a hay analysis important for you to purchase?  Do you do a visual inspection to check quality?  Do you prefer first, second or third cut – why?  Or, do you simple go with whatever you can afford?  All of these are important questions.In analyzing nutritional rations for horses on Vancouver Island, I have come across a wide range of hays, from local Orchardgrass to imported alfalfa and timothy mixes all with different nutritional breakdowns.  One of the biggest mistakes I see horse owners make is the assumption of the nutritional value of their hay.  Not all hay is created equally.  In fact, not all hay of one species or location is created equally either.  Hay quality from the same field can vary every year, based on the spring temperatures, whether or not the field was fertilized (and with what), when it got cut, how much rain the area had etc.  Similarly, Vancouver Island grown Orchardgrass is extremely variable across the island.  I am sometimes lucky enough to get a hay analysis from a local farmer if they are kind enough to share with me (and if they are one of the ones that actually test).  I’ve kept these analyses as reference materials and I am always astounded at how much variability there is in local hay.  On visual inspection alone, one would have never been able to tell the difference between a local hay with high sugar or protein, and one with lower values.  Does the amount of leafiness or how green a hay is give us a clue to the nutritional value?  Yes, and no.  We can make an estimate of maturity level (and some nutrient info) of a hay by a visual inspection, and certainly check for any dust/mold.  However, without a hay analysis to reveal the true chemical make up of the hay, one still really doesn’t know the nutritional value of what they are feeding.  For example, in 7 hay analyses of local Orchardgrass hay all collected in the same growing season (2010) in the same area on Southern Vancouver Island, I noted a range in Crude Protein values from 9.6-17.6%, WSC (Water Soluble Carbohydrates AKA sugars) from 9.8-20.5% and overall DE (Digestible Energy AKA calories) from 1.17-2.27 Mcal/kg.  Quite a bit of range!  I have also seen analyses with more extreme numbers on both the low and high ends.

Ultimately, if you want to know what you are feeding your horse, get your hay tested.  The cost is reasonable, and it isn’t hard to do.  Ideally, you should do this every year as the new crops are harvested as hay off of the same field as last year can be very different than they previous year’s crop.  Since 90-100% of what we should be/are feeding our horses is forage, how do you really know what your horse’s diet is?  Just because you are feeding those 14% complete feed pellets, doesn’t mean that your horse is getting the appropriate amount of protein to maintain condition.  Mature horses need roughly between 10-14% protein depending on their level of activity and life stage.  Remember that ALL feeding rations are a balance of ratios when looking at nutrients, so to calculate the total protein in your horse’s diet you have to take into account all of the sources and weight them appropriately in your calculation.

For Example:

You feed daily

– 10kg of grass hay with 9% protein
– 1.5kg of 14% pellets
– 500g rice bran with 15.5% protein
– 500g beet pulp with 10% protein

The TOTAL protein in your ration is: (10 x 0.09)+(1.5 x 0.14)+(0.5 x 0.155)+(0.5 x 0.10) / Total Amount Fed By Weight = (0.9 + 0.21 + 0.078 + 0.05) / 12.5 = 0.099 x 100% = 9.9% protein*

* Technically, all of your calculations should be done taking into account the amount of moisture in all feeds to get the true values fed on a dry matter basis, but for the sake of simplicity I used 100% of the feed weights.

So, the moral of my story is that one cannot underestimate the importance of knowing your hay’s real nutritional value.  All the supplements we feed don’t really add that much more to our horse’s daily nutrients (unless, of course, you are feeding huge amounts of supplements).  If you’d like to get more information on hay testing, please see the links below as a start, and feel free to contact me with any questions.

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