In summertime, a farmer’s thoughts turn to thoughts of hay-cutting, and horse owners are eager to get their hands on the season’s best forage for their horses.
What are some things you should look out for when buying hay? Whether you wander a warehouse and order a truckload or go to the feedstore once a week with your pick-up truck, there are certain qualities to good hay that you should always watch for. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and make sure your sinuses are clear, because you’re going to use all your senses to make sure you find the best hay for your horse.
Green means delicious, right? That’s not always the case, although it’s certainly true that green hay looks very tasty indeed. While green hay might contain more Vitamin A, not everything in your hay bale might be hay. You might be looking at very bright green weeds, which would have less nutritional value than a less attractive-looking bale of brown, sun-bleached alfalfa. Overall, however, if the green color is coming from the grass or legume itself, you’re looking at a fairly new bale of hay which hasn’t been sun-bleached or been rained on, which could leach nutrients. And while beige hay is generally perfectly acceptable, yellowed hay which looks more like straw has probably lost most of its nutritional value.
Seed-heads are bad, though. Yes, very mature hay — grasses or legumes that have already produced seeds from their heads or their blooms — is less digestible than new hay. As plants mature, their structural carbohydrates and lignin increase, as their crude protein decreases. Horses can partially digest structural carbs, but can’t digest lignin at all. So mature hay is a lot more of a time-filler — something to keep a horse occupied — and a lot less of a nutritious meal.
But leaves are definitely good. Leaves are excellent. Hay with lots of leaves provides optimal nutrition: leaves are not only more digestible than stems (it’s those structural carbohydrates again) but leaves are an indicator that the hay was baled at ideal moisture levels, best for maintaining quality.
Alfalfa will make my horse insane. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s true that semi-mature alfalfa is much higher in crude protein than other forages: 17% as compared to about 8% in grass or 13% in a mixed bale. Consider how much protein your horse receives from grain; some people only feed a ration balancer and give all their protein from legume hay. And since hay varies so widely throughout the season and from cutting to cutting, alfalfa can be used to supplement mature grass which might be low in nutritional quality. Foals and lactating mares will always benefit from legume hay.
Hay cubes and pellets totally replace hay, though. Not quite. Although hay cubes, which are made of coarsely chopped hay, and even bagged chopped hay, can replace forage in enough quantity (and fed carefully, as horses might choke on them) hay pellets, according to the University of Perdue, cannot completely replace forage. The particle size of the hay is not large enough to maintain digestive health. The less a horse eats, the less they feel full, and so horses who are fed only hay pellets will resort to destructive wood-eating and tail-chewing.
A few other things to think about when buying hay are the smell and the dustiness. Good hay smells like good hay — you’ll know it when you smell it. And you’ll really know it after the first time you reach into the middle of a hay bale, pull out a sample, put it to your nose, and get a whiff of mold or mildew. Moldy hay and its opposite, dusty hay, are extremely dangerous not only to feed your horse, but to even store in your barn: moldy hay can, in extreme cases, build up so much heat that it spontaneously combusts.
So go out there and start eyeballing, touching, and sniffing hay. It’s okay — that’s what horsepeople do!