Typical Differences in Your Horse's Hay

When it comes to feeding your horse, you have a lot of different options in terms of types of hay. Different types of hay have different nutrients contents. There is not one type of hay that works best for all horses. Hay that works great for one horse may be to energy-dense for one horse or not energy-dense enough for another. It is important to find the hay that works best for your horse.

Types of Hay

horse eating hay

There are many different categories of hay: grass, legume, and cereal grain. The most common legume hay for horses, by far, is alfalfa. Alfalfa is available across the United States. Common cereal grain hays are oat hay, barley, wheat, or rye. Some of the most common grass hays fed to horses include Timothy, Brome, Orchard Grass, Bluegrass, and Coastal Bermuda. Grasses are then sub-categorized into warm-season and cool-season grasses. A cool-season grass is defined as a grass that grows the most during late spring and early summer, with another growth spurt during late summer and early fall. These grasses can usually withstand cold weather but don't handle high temperatures very well. Therefore, they are fairly common in the northern States. Common cool-season grass hays include timothy or orchard grass. Warm-season grasses grow most during the late spring to early fall. They grow well in areas where summers are very hot, but don't withstand cold temperatures very well. For this reason, warm-season grass hays are common in the central and southern parts of the United States. Warm-season grass hays include Bermuda, Brome, and Teff. Cereal grain hays need to be fed with caution, as they can be high in nitrates. In order to make good cereal grain hay, they need to be cut while still growing. The nutritional value of cereal grain hay can vary greatly. If the plant is allowed to mature the nutritional value will be significantly decreased, because the seed heads are lost before your horse can consume them. When cutting while the plant is still growing, the seed heads are high in starch. So, if oat hay is the main source of forage in the diet, your horse will have a greater chance of metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

Nutritional differences in hay

round bale hay

Calcium and phosphorus

The ideal calcium: phosphorus ratio if approximately 2:1. Alfalfa hay is higher in calcium than grass hay, whereas grass hay is higher in phosphorus. The average alfalfa hay calcium: phosphorus ratio is 5:1, whereas many grass hays range 1:1-2. The exception is timothy, with favorable calcium: phosphorus ratio of approximately 2:1. Therefore, if you aren't feeding timothy grass hay, you should balance the diet by feeding both types a grass hay and alfalfa, or by feeding a ration balancer, such as Simplete. The proper calcium: phosphorus ratio to especially important for pregnant and lactating mares, and growing horses.

Trace minerals and vitamins

Grass hay is typically low in zinc, selenium, vitamin E, vitamin C and vitamin A. Vitamins in all types of hay are very volatile. Research has shown that vitamin A in fresh forage decreases by half after curing and baling. Furthermore, vitamin E decreases up to 80% after hay has been stored for 6 months. For these reasons, it is important to feed a vitamin-mineral supplement, like Horse Guard, to balance the gaps in your horse's hay, no matter what type of hay you are feeding.

Protein, Fiber, and Sugars

Alfalfa hay is usually the highest in protein and energy, with 15-22% crude protein. The average adult horse requires 10-11% crude protein in their overall diet. The excess protein in alfalfa is broken down into carbohydrates and used as an energy source. This is the reasoning behind "alfalfa makes my horse hot."

Grass hays range from 8-14% crude protein. Cool-season grasses are typically higher in crude protein than warm-season grasses. They are also higher in sugars than warm-season grasses, which makes them more palatable to most horses. Warm-season grass hays are usually the most fibrous, which makes it great hay for the "easy-keeper" because they can consume more but not get too many calories.

Considering your horse

When choosing hay for your horse ask yourself a few questions.
  • What body condition is my horse in?
  • What workload is my horse getting?
  • Is my horse healthy or does he have any pre-existing conditions that need to be considered?

horse eating hay

Determining the answers to these questions will help you to pick the best hay for your horse. If you are buying your hay from the feed store, they may have % crude protein and digestive energy of the hay, which will help to pick the hay that best caters to your horse's needs. Remember, that your horse will do best if he can have access to hay continuously, so don't pick hay that you can only feed a small amount in order to maintain a healthy weight. Feed Horse Guard vitamin-mineral supplement with your hay to fill the nutritional gaps in your hay. Hay is the foundation to your horse's diet, so make sure it will help to achieve the optimal health for your horse.

Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S.

Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S.

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