There’s a lot of misinformation about hay out there. The best way to know what is in your hay to balance your horse’s diet is to have hay tested or ask the grower if they have test results. For more in-depth knowledge on how to read and understand a hay test please see the links at the end of the article. There would be no way to fit everything into one article, so we will just simply go over the basics of the different kinds of hay available in the West. If you have any questions on the hay in your area, call your county extension office.

There are two different classifications of hay: legumes and grasses. Legumes include alfalfa and clover. Grasses includes Timothy, orchard, Bermuda, brome, bluegrass, oat, and barley hay.

Grass and alfalfa field.

Alfalfa

Higher protein & calorie content. Alfalfa is lower in fiber than grass hay. Alfalfa also has higher calcium levels. Alfalfa is always easy to find no matter where you are and it’s very palatable to horses. It is great hay for working horses or hard keepers, as well as lactating mares.

Alfalfa is also generally lower in sugar than most grass hays, so if a hay test isn’t available and you have a horse who requires low sugar in their diet – alfalfa is a safe choice. Alfalfa also provides more energy so is a great feed in the winter to help keep horses warmer.

Grass

Grass hay is lower in both protein and energy compared to alfalfa, but it has more fiber. Since it isn’t as nutrient dense as alfalfa, horses need more grass hay to fulfill their nutritional needs. If a horse is in heavy work it can be hard to maintain their condition on grass hay alone. Grass is a great hay for easy keepers, horses in light work, and retired horses. It’s an excellent filler for horses that require bulk in their diet.

Timothy

High in fiber, low in calcium, and easy to digest, Timothy is a favorite among many horse owners. It is often expensive. It must be harvested in the pre or early bloom stage to ensure the highest nutrient content. Quality decreases after the 2nd cutting so the best cutting is usually 1st.

Orchard Grass

High in fiber with good flavor, it’s palatable to horses and a popular choice with horse owners. It’s not as sensitive to time of cutting in regards to end-stage nutritional content.

Bermuda/Coastal

Bermuda is usually reasonably priced but can be a little lower quality. It’s more common in the southwest. It can be as nutritious as timothy, but its feed value is increased when grown with a legume like alfalfa. It will often be more golden colored because it is a warm season grass, so the color does not necessarily mean that nutrients have been lost.

Oat

Oat hay is an excellent choice. It is typically low in protein and high in fiber. It has thicker, tougher stalks than other hay so some horses may not like it. It’s a hardy hay and it takes them a while to eat it.

3rd cutting Timothy Grass.

Cuttings

1st cutting hay is high in stems and low in leaf. It will have higher fiber and lower protein and fat.

2nd cutting is a more flexible stem with a medium leaf. It has an average amount of fiber, protein and fat.

3rd cutting will be the richest, it will be low in fiber as it is very soft, leafy, and green. It will be higher in protein and fat.


How to Assess Hay

Appearance

How leafy is it? The more leaves the higher the nutritional content. Hay with a lot of stalk and mature seedheads may have been baled late. Some horses may not mind hay with a lot of thick stems, and it may have plenty of adequate nutrition for your needs, but if you have a performance horse or a pregnant mare you may want to find higher quality.

Look for evidence of weeds. Look at the fields on the property – if you see lots of thistles or other weeds, there’s a good chance the hay may have some too. Shake a few handfuls and see how much dust flies off. All hay can have some dust, but if it’s a lot it can cause or aggravate respiratory issues. If you need to feed dusty hay, you can wet it down to help.

Do the leaves crumble when you touch them? Leaf shatter can mean the hay is losing much of its nutrition. It may have been too dry as it was being raked and turned. If it disintegrates with every touch, you may want to buy elsewhere.

Color

Good hay has a pale green to pale gold color. If it’s dull and brown it may have been rained on while drying. Don’t judge the color by the outside of the bale as sun bleaching does not affect the nutrition in the bale. If you can’t cut a bale to check, try to stick your hand in and pull out a clump to check. If there are dark or brown spots in the bale it may mean it’s too moist and it could be mold or develop into mold.

Smell

Good hay should never smell sharp, musty or metallic, those are signs that the hay has mold.

Weight

If some bales are heavier than others the heavy ones may have too much moisture. In the same vein if it’s too light it may have been baled very dry. This skill takes a while to perfect but once you have lifted enough bales you will begin to be able to tell the difference in moisture content.

Storage

Hay that has been stored in a shed or somewhere protected from the elements will hold its nutritional value for a very long time. It will lose its nutritional value as it ages, but not as fast as you’d think. Well stored high-quality hay will be hard to beat even if it’s a season or two old.

Just because bales are sun-bleached on the outside does not mean they aren’t still good.

Questions to ask when buying hay

Was it rained on? When was it cut? Are there any weeds in it? Is it a good feed for horses? Most hay growers will tell you if the hay is okay for horses or not if you specify what you are feeding.

So What Do I Feed?!

The best hay to feed your horse is a hay that he finds palatable and that also helps him keep his condition best. You can consult with your vet about what to feed, but they usually only learn about basic nutrition in school. For more specialized nutritional consults you may need to find an equine nutritionist. If you have a horse who has special nutritional needs it’s important to educate yourself and learn all you can to help improve their diet.

What can you do to learn more about your feeding program? Here are links to some great resources:

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Jen Jacobson
When Jen isn't riding all over the west coast, she's researching all things horse. She spends her time competing in endurance and promoting the American Saddlebred. Jen is based in Spokane, Washington (but loves Nevada).

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