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Horse hay: how to identify the good stuff

Commercial farmers turned their backs on conventional bales years ago, but horse owners generally prefer them because they're easy to feed out, and you don't need machinery to handle them.

Commercial farmers turned their backs on conventional bales years ago, but horse owners generally prefer them because they’re easy to feed out, and you don’t need machinery to handle them.

Horses are very fussy about their hay, and are likely to take it as a personal insult if their owners don’t deliver the good stuff. Neil Clarkson reports.

Happiness, as all horse owners know, is having a shed overflowing with top quality hay by the end of summer, ready to sustain the troops through the winter.

Horse owners either buy it, or shut up a paddock or two in the hope that both good weather and a local farm contractor will converge on the property at the same time.

Knowing how to identify good hay is an essential skill for any horse owner, for two reasons. Firstly, who wants to fork out good cash for bad hay? Secondly, horses will struggle to get any real nutritional value from rumpty hay. They may not even eat it. Dusty and mouldy hay may even do your horse harm, and its overall poor quality might bring on a case of hay-induced colic.

Buying in hay is the only option if you can’t afford the luxury of shutting up a paddock. It’s also the best course if you need only a few dozen bales to see through the winter, as it will rarely be economic to have a contractor do small quantities.

Before we look at how to assess hay, it’s important to understand the process – and just as importantly – what can go wrong.

Scenario one: It’s an idyllic and gloriously sunny day. Your friendly contractor, tanned from weeks of haymaking, drives in the gate. Spring has been kind and a thick sward of leafy pasture awaits mowing. He mows the grass, which immediately begins to dry under the baking sun. The contractor is back three days later with his tedder and stirs up the grass, allowing it to dry even faster. The following day he returns and declares, that with continuing good weather, he will row it up for baling the next day. He’s as good as his word. The hay is rowed up and four hours later the tractor and baler drive through the gate. The contractor checks the hay carefully and declares it perfect for baling. Within two hours you have a paddock of conventional bales and your friends and neighbours have formed a traffic jam at your front gate as they arrive to help you get it into the shed.

The grass is mown just as morning drizzle is clearing, with the promise of a good day. By early afternoon the hay is drying in the sun.

The grass is mown just as morning drizzle is clearing, with the promise of a good day. By early afternoon the hay is drying in the sun.

Scenario two: It’s been a hell of a summer. Hardly a day goes by without a shower. The weather just hasn’t been settled enough to make hay. Your grass is past its best and is going to seed. The weather is finally looking better so you phone your contractor. Everyone is bending his ear about making hay, he explains. Nevertheless, two days later your grass is mowed. It rains that night. There’s some good drying the next day, but it will cop two more showers before it’s finally baled. It probably could have done with another afternoon of drying but the weather forecast for the next three days was poor. No-one turns up to help you cart it in.

If you think the second scenario is far from ideal, our worst effort was having hay down for two weeks, during which it copped 125mm of rain. We eventually baled it just to get it off the paddock.

While the first scenario will deliver perfect hay, most hay-making efforts will end up a combination of the two. Hopefully, most things will go right, but it’s possible there will be a few setbacks along the way.


Cattle hay

Poor quality hay is sometimes called cattle hay. Cattle are well equipped to digest stalky, mature grass and hay. Research shows that a cattlebeast’s ability to digest stalky grass falls off only two or three per cent compared to leafy grass. The ability of horses to do the same falls off by 20 per cent or more. That’s why you want the leafy stuff.


 

The most nutritious meadow hay will come from a nice mix of leafy grass and clover. Grass which is stalky and has developed mature seedheads is past its best. If it’s been a changeable season, those making hay may have little choice but to watch their grass go to seed while waiting for a window in the weather. In short, you’re better to let the grass pass its peak than cut it and face getting it wet.

Once cut, the last thing anyone wants is rain, which leaches nutrients from the cut grass into the soil. A little rain soon after cutting usually does little harm, but showers when the grass is close to baling is much worse.

So what should you look for in a bale of meadow hay? There are 10 key areas to consider.

 

Inspect the exterior of the bale for colour, texture and make-up. And check the bale to ensure it's in the right weight range.

Inspect the exterior of the bale for colour, texture and make-up. And check the bale to ensure it’s in the right weight range.

Appearance  

Inspect it closely. You’re after hay with plenty of leaf matter. Hay with an abundance of stalk and mature seedheads will have been baled past its best. Look for evidence of dried weeds and thistles – you’re wanting to buy dried grass, not weeds. Casually check out the paddocks as you head for the haystack. If you see lots of thistles and other undesirable weeds, there’s a good chance the hay will have its fair share, too. You may see a lot of stalky hay if it’s been a difficult season. It may still be acceptable for horses if they’re going to enjoy a quiet winter, but don’t kid yourself. It will have more fibre and less protein than leafier hay. You’ll be better off paying a bit more for hay with a higher leaf content – if it’s available. If you see small immature seedheads, the hay will be fine. In fact, some consider this to be an ideal state for hay-making.

Colour

Good hay is a pale green to pale gold in colour. If it looks dull and brown there’s a good chance it copped rain while drying. If it’s really golden, it may have been too dry when cut. The best area to assess colour is in the heart of a bale, not the outside, which can bleach out in daylight. Don’t be put off by a bale with part of its exterior bleached. Chances are it has simply been spending its days on the outside of a haystack. The bleached area will probably have lost its vitamin A content, but most of the nutrients should still be there. If you’re not able to cut a random bale to check its interior, thrust a hand inside the bale as far as you can and pull out a fistful to check.

Mould

Hay should ideally be baled when the moisture content is around 15 to 17 per cent. Most contractors will assess moisture content on experience. You might get away with slightly higher moisture with conventional bales, but it will be a close-run thing. Moist hay poses a real fire risk, so don’t keep it inside a shed. It also provides perfect growing conditions for mould, which can be toxic to livestock. You’re most likely to find it in the heart of the bale. This is another thing to check when you cut open a sample bale, or pull out a sample by hand. Mould can show as areas of darker discolouration, but it isn’t always visible. Worry not: you have another weapon in your arsenal. That nose on your face is not just for decoration!


Hay in history

A renowned physicist argues that hay was the most important invention of the last two thousand years. Freeman Dyson points out that hay was unknown in classical Greek and Roman times. The Greeks and Romans did not need hay, as the warm Mediterranean climate meant enough grass grew all year round to feed horses and livestock. 
Dyson argues that the lack of hay effectively thwarted the spread of civilisation into the cooler climes further north, where a source of winter feed was essential to keep animals. 
Hay was “invented” some time during the Dark Ages, allowing urban civilisation to spread north into the temperate zones of Europe. Hay’s use was widespread among the village dwellers of medieval Europe. 
Dyson argues that the invention of hay was a decisive moment in history, which began the migration of the world’s power-base from the Mediterranean area to Northern and Western Europe. 
Ponder that when you feed out your next bale!


Smell

The sweet smell of good hay is just glorious, and comes from a plant chemical called coumarin. But your nose is also an essential tool in sniffing out mould. You may well smell mould before seeing it. If you’re able to cut a sample bale, thrust your nose into its heart before the surrounding air can dilute any odours. Hopefully, you’ll detect a nice sweet smell. If the smell is sharp, musty, almost metallic, it is a sure sign the hay is mould-affected.

Weight

If you can tuck a conventional bale under each arm, the grass has almost certainly been dried to a crisp in the paddock before baling. Its nutritional value will be limited. If a single bale is tough to lift, it may be too moist and be breeding mould furiously. You’ll need to lift a few bales to get the hang of this, but once you recognise the right weight range for a good bale, you’ve acquired a useful skill.


Buy like a professional

You arrive at a property to buy some hay. Glance over the paddocks. Do they appear well tended or weedy? If weedy, there’s a good chance those same nasties will be lurking in the hay.

Ask the age of the hay and how the baling went … they might tell all. Has it been well stored? Inspect the hay carefully. Is the colour good? Is there plenty of leaf or is it coarse and woody? Is it easy to the touch? Can you see evidence of weeds and thistles in the hay? Does it smell sweet or musty?

Select a bale and check its weight. If too heavy, it may have been baled when too moist. Cut open the bale and pull it apart in the middle. Quickly shove your nose down into the centre, where it should smell sweet. If it smells musty and metallic, there’s mould. The discolouration of mould may not be visible, but you should be able to smell it.

If the colour, texture and smell of the hay in the centre is good, you’re probably on a winner. If you feel uncomfortable asking to cut the bale, thrust your hand in as far as it will go and pull out a fistful. Use that sample to assess the hay. If you’re using the latter method, test a second bale as well.


Texture

How does the hay feel when you work it in your hand? If it feels coarse, your horse is likely to find it that way, too. A good leafy hay will be easy to the touch. Even the stems in good hay should be flexible.

Dust

As you test the hay for texture, smell, and weight, take careful note of whether it’s producing much dust. There’s only one place that dust will end up – your horses’ lungs. The dust can come from a number of sources. It could have been blown on to grass during a dry spell before cutting. It may have been kicked up from dry ground by the machinery making the hay. It could also have come from the gradual breakdown of the hay. Whatever the cause, avoid dusty hay.

One day down ... cut grass under the late-afternoon sun.

One day down … cut grass under the late-afternoon sun.

Leaf shatter

This is where the leaf matter in the hay crumbles when it is touched or disturbed. The main problem is that leaf shatter will quickly rob the affected hay of its nutrients. Leaf shatter can begin even before the hay is baled, especially if a leafy crop is too dry when the contractor rakes it. You have to assess how bad the problem is, but if the bale is disintegrating with every touch, you might be better to look elsewhere.

Age
Hay will gradually lose its nutritional value as it ages, but not as fast as many people think. While new-season hay is probably the best option, well-stored top-quality hay will still be pretty hard to beat, even if it’s a season or two old.

Storage

Hay can be stored outside, but there is always a risk that rain may penetrate the covers. Hay that’s been shed-stored and protected from the elements is most likely your best bet. When you get it home, store the hay well. Keep if off the ground, otherwise the hay will soak up moisture like the wick of a candle, effectively ruining the bale. Typically, half the bale may be rendered worthless.


Colic risk

Feeding fresh hay to a horse runs the risk of causing colic.
Most hay that goes into a shed still has a little drying to do, which is why you’re best to pack it in with a little air space between the bales.
It is at its most dangerous to your horse if it’s heating up due to the natural bacterial action in the moist hay. It’s a fine line: too much moisture and you’re on the inevitable path to mould.
As a general rule, don’t feed out hay of any kind to your horse until it’s been stored for at least a month. Cut a bale or thrust a hand in, and, if you detect any heat, don’t feed it out.
You could feed out hay immediately if it has been cured to absolute perfection in the paddock and it has just the right moisture content, but this is rarely the case.
Always err on the side of caution.
As with any feed change, introduce hay gradually to the diet.


The cost of having hay baled varies throughout the country, but expect to pay anything from $2 to $3.

The cost of having hay baled varies throughout the country, but expect to pay anything from $2 to $3.

 

Finally, if you’ve gone to the trouble of sourcing the best hay for your equine friends, make sure they don’t waste it by trampling it into the muddy paddock.

If you’ve bought the hay, it’s a good idea to feed it out in only one part of each paddock.

That way you can keep an eye on the areas in question for any weeds that may take root come spring.

 


The price of hay

The price of hay is driven by supply and demand. If you play the market badly and are forced to buy at the wrong time, you can easily pay twice as much for your hay. A good hay season will keep a lid on prices for a time, but a bad or long winter will push prices up. A poor hay season followed by a long winter will usually push hay to top dollar. Generally, if you have storage space, you’re best to buy early. 
Baling will cost anywhere from around $2 to $3 a bale and sometimes even more, depending on how far the contractor had to go, the quantity being made, how much work the contractor did (he may have had to ted it more than once), and the price of fuel.
It stands to reason that anyone selling hay for $3.50 a bale is not making anything, once the cost of fuel and time in getting the bales into the shed is factored in, along with an allowance for fertiliser to replace the nutrients lost in taking the grass off the paddock.
Around $4.50 to $5 a bale would seem a very fair price for a conventional bale of quality hay bought direct from a farmer. Anything above that and supply and demand will dictate price. Meadow hay has reached $10 to $12 a bale in Canterbury during a bad drought. Prices for good meadow hay in the North Island have gone even higher, reaching $15 and more.
Some farmers will give you a really good deal if you buy the bales straight off the paddock – but it’s up to you to pay up, turn up, and get them home and under cover before it rains.


Lucerne / Alfalfa hay

Lucerne hay is a favourite of horses, but it can be expensive, especially in parts of the country where it doesn’t grow well. It has plenty of protein – 15 to 18 per cent for good hay – but this may be more than your horse actually needs.

The hay is raked in 30deg heat for a final couple of hours drying before baling.

The hay is raked in 30deg heat for a final couple of hours drying before baling.

By comparison, meadow hay is likely to have 6 to 10 per cent protein, based on dry-matter weight.

If you’re wondering where good spring pasture fits in this equation, it can be 20 to 25 per cent protein, based on dry matter. No wonder horses can easily get in trouble on such a rich diet.

Lurcerne hay is a great option for growing horses and mares with a foal at foot, both of which have a need for higher levels of protein, but for most horses it’s usually treated as a very useful and appealing supplement to their diet. It’s tasty and a good choice for fussy eaters.

There’s no doubt that just about every horse will enjoy a diet rich in lucerne hay. The only thing is you may well be paying well for the privilege of feeding them additional protein they don’t need.

Never begrudge a farmer his premium return on lucerne hay. It’s an expensive crop and tricky to get it just right for baling.

 

Feeding balage to horses – the ultimate guide
Balage chosen by horses over hay – study

 

First published on Horsetalk in March, 2007.

 

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Comments (1)

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  1. David says:

    Rich (alfalfa) hay (and pasture) has some risk of bloating.

    With sheep at least, I have found risk can be reduced by feeding smaller amounts more times a day.

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