How to Buy and Store Hay: An Animal Nutritionist’s Top Advice
Over the last two years, we have seen hay prices escalate to levels never seen before. The cost of hay can often exceed $10 per day for each horse you own. With this significant investment in our horses’ diets, we want to make sure we purchase and store clean, dry hay.
What Type of Hay to Buy
When buying hay, most people make their decision based on looks and smell. Timothy is a great hay source and is considered the king of choices by many horses owners. Grass hays like orchard grass with a small amount of alfalfa are a local favorite as well. However, alfalfa seems to be the most common hay I see in most barns across the valley. I believe this is largely due to perception, availability, and price.
My most recommended hay is a grass with some alfalfa. We underestimate the quality of grass hays grown in the Western regions: Grass hays here, unlike in the Midwest and Eastern United States, are irrigated and grown on a strict cutting cycle. Because of tightly controlled growing days, irrigation, and fertilization, grass hays are typically higher in protein than what is seen east of the Mississippi River.
Grass hays here are between 15 to 20 percent protein, whereas most alfalfa is 18 to 20 percent protein. Any hay above 13 percent protein will provide enough protein from forages to most horses.
Energy levels are also very high in grass hays grown in the West. We analyze hays for Equine DE (Digestible Energy) and we look for how much of the fiber in the hay is actually broken down and utilized as energy for the horse, versus being dumped in your very expensive Republic Service dumpster.
Alfalfa will be around 1.03 DE, whereas grass hays are about 1.01 — nearly the same. The advantage of the grass hay energy is that it hangs around a lot longer in the gut than alfalfa does. Alfalfa has a faster rate of passage with a lower rate of digestibility, even though the energy is a bit higher. Grass hays have a slower rate of passage, but a more complete digestibility rate. It sounds confusing, I know! But ultimately, you want your horse to have good gut fill, keeping the digestive tract healthy and full.
Adding yeasts will help your hays become more efficient as well. We have seen that by adding certain yeast products, and through research data, that a quality yeast product will increase the energy efficiency of the forage by at least 10 percent. It’s kind of like getting more miles per gallon with a fuel additive for your car.
Your choice of hay is to some degree economical, but also has to do with the intended exercise load of the horse, stressors in the horse’s daily routine, and each horse’s way of digesting forages. I always suggest talking with a nutritionist to make sure your forage and supplement program is right for your horse.
How to Store Hay Properly
Here’s the key I always tell owners: Whichever hay you choose, make sure it’s clean and stays that way. There should be no signs of mold, which can include a white dusting in the hay, brown caramelized hay, and an unusual smell. If you see any signs of this in your hay, it has likely been damaged by moisture.
When hay gets wet, it ferments, causing a microbial action to take place that produces mold. Those molds, as a result, produce toxins. Even if hay is no longer wet after moisture damage, it can still harbor many dangerous toxins.
Horses are very sensitive to toxins, unlike cows, who have rumens and rumen bacteria that destroy a lot of bad things in the stomach. When horses ingest feed high in toxins, it will be absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and can be detrimental to their health. There are many toxins present in contaminated feeds, some worse than others.
Here are key tips for storing your hay during the wet season we’ve experienced recently:
Never store hay on the ground, since moisture can migrate upward into the bale.
Cover your hay when it rains (both the tops and sides), and ensure the bottoms are off the ground.
Make sure you buy hay that was covered previously. Look, smell, and feel for any signs of moisture or damage.
Open a bale when you buy a load. The outside might look great, but the inside can have heat damage and show signs of mold.
If you see damaged hay, stop feeding it. The cost of the bale is small relative to the veterinarian bill or value of your horse.
Watch moisture in new crop hay. If you get newly cut hay and you have a shed or barn to put it in, do not cover it. Hay has to breathe, and it expires moisture after it is baled. If you trap this under a tarp right after it was baled, you can cause the hay to heat. Hay farmers call this the “curing period.” If hay gets warm, it ferments and grows bad bugs, which develop into molds and produce those nasty toxins.
If you know someone who has a forage probe, have your hay tested by a certified laboratory. One lab that provides an equine forage analysis is Dairyland Labs in Arcadia, Wisconsin. Its website is www.dairylandlabs.com.