February 2018
Feeding Facts

Considering the Options for Horse Hay

Ideally, we would have ample pasture for our livestock year-round. This, however, is not generally the case and we have to supplement with other things. Cattle, sheep, goats and horses all need to have some form of long-stem-type fiber and that means we almost always have to feed hay when the pastures stop growing. Generally, in the winter months, half to three-fourths of the feed your horse gets will come from hay. Hay is one of the most expensive things we buy or grow and feed, when the actual cost per pound of nutrient is considered and good hay buying decisions will often mean more to a producer’s bottom line and to the quality of life for the animal than any other routinely made decisions.

Hay generally is divided into two categories, legumes and grasses. Legumes, generally alfalfa and clovers, tend to be higher in energy and protein. They also tend to not grow well in Alabama and have to be hauled in, making them far more expensive than local grass hays. In certain situations, they still price in an acceptable amount and are really good to add to your feeding regimen when needed. They do have some drawbacks that should be considered such as a higher likelihood of mold and the possible presence of blister beetles in alfalfa.

Grass hays are far more abundant within the state and form the backbone of most winter-feeding plans. When we talk about grass hays in Alabama, we can divide them into three basic categories: warm-season perennials, cool-season perennials and cool-season annuals. They do vary widely in nutrient content, digestibility and palatability. The age and growth stage of the plant, the weather at harvest and even the time of day the hay was cut can make a difference in the nutrient values, digestibility and how well the horses will eat it.

Warm-season perennials such as Bermuda grass and sometimes Bahiagrass and dallisgrass make good hay if harvested properly. Bermuda grass is the one most often considered to be horse hay and makes reasonably good hay. If it is not harvested in a timely manner, it tends to lose value fairly quickly and the protein and energy levels get to be too low. At that point, it is not a good option and can actually cost the animal more energy to digest than it provides (as can any of the grass hays).

Cool-season perennials such as fescue and orchard grass can have a place in meeting our hay needs. Both actually test higher in protein and energy than the warm-season perennials if harvested correctly and can be a good source of nutrients in some situations.

Orchard grass is not as widely available, but makes an excellent feed when you can find it.

Fescue has a bad reputation, well-earned in horse circles. However, unless you are feeding pregnant mares, it may work for you if it was harvested correctly.

One of the problems with cool-season grasses is they mature before the weather is warm enough to get them cut and dried, and often they are too mature or have mold problems from incorrect weather conditions at harvest.

Again, these cool-season grasses can have a great deal of value if harvested and stored correctly. Don’t be afraid to look at them when considering hay needs.

Cool-season annuals tend to be the highest in protein and energy values of all the grass hays we have available in the Southeast, but, they have many of the same concerns as the cool-season perennials. They will most likely become too mature before the weather is warm enough to cut and dry enough that they won’t mold. If you can find ryegrass, rye or wheat hay cut at the proper stage and not moldy, it will make excellent and generally inexpensive hay and should be considered.

By now, most all of the hay-buying decisions have already been made and what we have is what we will have to feed, but to feed it correctly we need to know what we actually have. For less than $20, you can have it tested and know exactly what you’re dealing with. Then we can make intelligent decisions on how much supplemental feed will be needed to help our horses survive the cold days that are still going to be around for a little while longer.

Poor hays, less than 6 percent protein and 55 percent TDN, will starve a horse. Even if the horse is eating all it can hold, it will lose weight and starve.

Unfortunately, I have seen this before and, years such as 2017 when it rained all summer and a large percentage of the hay was too mature when it was harvested, that becomes a real issue.

The cold, wet days of late winter really are a drain on the livestock and they need plenty of energy to stay warm and, frankly, to survive. Poor hay by itself can starve them and even when combined with feed, if it is the wrong feed and it is not fed at the correct rate, the animals will suffer.

Have your hay tested. If you find it is not as good as you thought, your local Co-op can help you find the feed matching your animals’ needs to get them through the winter and advise you on how much to feed.



Jimmy Parker is AFC’s animal nutritionist.