Quality control: checking your horse’s hay and haylage

Hay and haylage are a vital part of your horse’s diet, so it is important to provide optimal quality.  Learn how to evaluate your forage and determine if it’s right for your horse.

When combined with balanced equine feed, hay and haylage can offer your horse a nutrient-dense diet – a critical step in ensuring he’s as happy and healthy as possible. There are various methods you can use to assess the quality of the hay or haylage you’re giving your horse. Here’s a guide to help.

Hay vs. haylage – what’s the difference?

The main difference between hay and haylage is how they’re made – hay is completely dried, while haylage is semi-dried. The preservation process is also different. Hay is preserved through a drying process and haylage is preserved by how it is wrapped.

Hay provides your horse with essential fiber, which helps maintain a healthy functioning digestive system. Haylage offers different but equally beneficial properties. Haylage is more digestible than hay and has a higher protein content.

Evaluating hay quality by look, smell and feel

The most common method of deciphering the quality of your hay is the good old-fashioned way – using your natural senses: sight, smell and touch.

Sight: Good hay is pale green to gold in color. If it is dull and brown then you should generally avoid it. Scan the batch for dried weeds and thistles.

Smell: The scent should be sweet and pleasant. Make sure you really stick your nose in when testing your hay – you want an authentic smell.

Touch: Your hay should feel leafy and flexible. If it feels coarse and harsh in your hand, it will feel the same in your horse’s mouth.

You can also have your hay professionally analyzed for quality. Many organizations offer this service. For a fully representative and accurate analysis, the process generally involves taking core samples from between six to 12 bales per stack. The sample is then tested and the results returned in the form of a lab report that can indicate levels of nitrate, moisture, crude protein, starch, fiber and digestible energy.

Always check for mold and dust

The best quality hay has no traces of mold or dust. Dusty or moldy feed is never good. Not only can it decrease the hay’s nutrient value, but it can also result in abdominal pain, breathing problems and many other complications that can cause long-term suffering. Store your feed containers in a cool dark place to avoid this.

Mold grows when hay is too moist. Ideally, hay should be baled when moisture content is around 15%. Higher moisture in hay can also present another problem – it’s more flammable and becomes a fire risk.

Haylage has more than double the moisture factor of hay. However, because haylage is often tightly “double wrapped” in multiple layers of plastic, it is protected from oxygen and mold growth.

Though wrapping methods help preserve haylage, the higher moisture content does present an increased risk of bacterial growth, especially if there are “hot spots” within a bale or if the haylage is low in quality. Only the highest quality haylage should be provided for equine use, and it’s never a bad idea to have it sampled and analyzed for quality assurance.

Varieties of hay and haylage

Hay comes in many variations. The majority of these are generally categorized as either legume or grass hays.

  • Legume hays like alfalfa are higher in protein and calcium than grass hay. The protein and mineral content from this type of nourishment can encourage your horse to drink more water – hydrating him and improving his overall health. Legume hay can be suited to horses with higher nutritional needs, such as working or lactating horses, but is too rich to be used as the main daily hay for an average horse. It is best used as a treat or blended with grass hay.
  • Grass hay may be lower in protein and energy but the fiber content is higher. Types of grass often used include Kentucky bluegrass, orchard and Timothy.
  • Haylage is semi-wilted and slightly fermented forage. It’s closest to a horse’s natural diet of grass, both in texture and nutrition. With 90% of the feed value of fresh grass, haylage is more digestible than hay. This can be beneficial for horses that are lightly worked or in rest.

Evaluating your horse’s needs

There are many contributing factors to consider when deciding what hay is best for your horse. The hay may be of the highest quality, but it might not be right for your equine companion.

First consider your horse as an individual – her weight, age, activity level and condition. If she is unwell, pregnant or a growing foal, always consult your vet or an equine nutritionist to decide what to feed her and when.

The general rule for a healthy equine diet is to feed the horse 70% to 80% hay, haylage or pasture. The remaining portion of your horse’s diet is typically being made up of grain. Feeding small amounts on a regular basis is recommended as it is better for digestion. Of course, it’s always essential to provide your horse with a plentiful supply of water for hydration.

If your horse uses a lot of energy, is a growing foal, or requires a high-calorie diet, then legume hay could be a good choice. If he is exerting less energy, you may choose grass hay as it is high in fiber and will satisfy his hunger without adding too many calories or excess protein. If you’re still unsure what type of hay or haylage your horse needs, schedule an appointment with your vet or a certified equine nutritionist. It never hurts to seek expert individualized advice!