Few riders give much thought to their horses’ hay as they toss them their daily ration. They tend to simply trust that their barn owner is feeding the horses what is appropriate, or think that as long as it’s is free from mold and relatively dust free, it is fine. But forage quality can have a much bigger impact than you might think.

Forages represent the largest part of a horse’s diet. These animals require a minimum of 1% of their body weight per day of forage material in order to ensure proper digestive tract function. In order to ensure your horse is getting all the nutrients he needs from his hay, it’s important to take a look at their forage quality. This involves:

• Determining the plants that make up the hay.
• Performing a visual inspection.
• Having a nutrient analysis done.

1. Hay varieties
Hay is made up of grasses, legumes, or a mix of the two. The most common grass hays include Timothy, bromegrass, orchardgrass and fescue.

• Timothy grass is one of the most common grasses in the world. It is easily cured and very palatable to horses, growing best in humid, cooler climates.

• Bromegrass grows readily on well drained soils, and is also very palatable and easy to cure.

• Orchardgrass does not tolerate drought well and is less palatable than Timothy grass.

• Fescue does well in hot, dry climates and easily tolerates trampling and excessive grazing. However, you need to take care when feeding it as tall fescue may become infested with a fungus that can extend the gestation length of pregnant mares.

• Legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, are often used in horse hay as they are extremely palatable, often moreso than grass hays. Legumes usually have a higher protein and calcium content than grass hays.

2. Take a close look
A visual inspection cannot tell you about the nutrient content of your hay, but it can be used to provide an indication of the overall quality. There are several things to look for when it comes to determining forage quality:

Color: Ideally, it should be good green color. Hay that is beige in hue indicates that it has been sun bleached or rained on, while hay that is dark brown may point to heat damage.

Maturity: Hay cut at a later stage of maturity is less digestible and has less crude protein than hay cut earlier. It will also be coarser and have more seed heads. Ideally, hay will feel soft to the touch, as it should have fine stems and lots of leaves.

Free of dust and mold: Mold is often found as clumps in the middle of the hay, while banging two flakes of hay together is a good way to see how much dust is present.

Free of weeds, pests and foreign materials: A good look at several bales of hay is the best way to ensure it does not contain an excessive quantity of weeds (some weeds are inevitable). Hay should also be free of pests, such as blister beetles, and foreign material like garbage.

3. The nutrient analysis
The only way to determine the nutrient content of hay (and ultimately forage quality) is to have a nutrient analysis done by a laboratory. If you are unable to locate a lab, your local feed dealer should be able to send you in the right direction. The lab will require a representative sampling of at least 20 bales of hay in order to provide accurate results. The best way to obtain a sample is to use a hay core sampler, which can often be borrowed from your local feed dealer or agriculture extension office. Alternatively, you can hand-collect small samples from different sections of the bales, place them in a Ziplock freezer bag to ensure none is lost during transport, and send them to a local lab for analysis.

A basic nutrient analysis should include digestible energy (DE), crude protein (CP), dry matter (DM), calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF). Additional nutrients can usually be analyzed if requested.

Digestible energy is a measure of the calories available to the horse and is related to the maturity of the hay. Young hay has more digestible energy than hay at a later stage of maturity.

Crude protein is a measure of the amino acids and nitrogen in the hay. Often there is ample crude protein to meet the needs of mature horses for maintenance or doing light work.

Dry matter involves measuring the moisture content of the hay. Most hays contain about 10% moisture and therefore have a 90% dry matter content.

Calcium, phosphorus and potassium are all minerals found in hay. It is important to have these values in order to properly balance your horse’s diets.

Acid detergent fiber is a measure of the poorly digested fiber in the hay. The higher the ADF, the less digestible the hay.

Neutral detergent fiber is a measure of all the nutrients that make up the cell walls of the plant (including the ADF). NDF is another important value because it represents the amount of hay the horse can consume.

Since it’s such an important component of your horse’s diet, checking his forage quality and ensuring he has access to good hay is one of the best ways to help maintain his health and well being.

Victoria Walsh has a BSc in Agriculture (University of Guelph) and an MSc in Equine Nutrition (University of Guelph). She grew up in Oakville riding and showing horses. Upon completion of her University degrees she began working as an Equine Nutrition Consultant for a local feed dealer. She is now working with Shannon Pratt as an independent Equine Nutrition Consultant. For more information, contact gryphonequine@gmail.com.