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How To Source High-Quality Forage for Horses

Consider forage palatability, nutritional content, and your horse’s needs before purchasing hay.
Alfalfa is typically best for horses that need more calories in their diet. | Getty Images

Feeding your horse high-quality forage is important for equine health and nutrition, but it can be difficult to identify and find it. The quality of your horse’s forage can strongly impact his overall health, from his gastrointestinal system to this skin and coat.

Why Are Some Forage Types Higher-Quality Than Others?

To source high-quality forage for your horse, it’s important to first understand several factors that influence its quality.

“For example, the grass or legume species in the forage will determine factors such as palatability, digestibility, protein, sugar, energy, and mineral contents,” says Peter Huntington, BVSc (Hons), MANZCVSc, and director of nutrition at Kentucky Equine Research, in Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia. “Cool-season grasses such as timothy hay will always be higher energy than warm-season ones like Bermuda hay. Weed contamination will also reduce quality.”

The cutting also dictates the quality of the forage. Huntington says farmers harvest many forage crops multiple times throughout the hay season, and second-cutting hay generally has the highest nutritional content. “Maturity at the time of cutting influences the leaf-to-stem ratio, as well as sugar and fiber content, and this will all have an impact of the quality of the hay,” says Huntington.

What happens after cutting is also vital for determining hay quality. “Rain will leach sugars and minerals from the grass and make it harder to dry, increasing the risk of molds and mycotoxins in the hay,” says Huntington. “The age of hay and storage conditions after baling are all critical considerations. If stored outside, rain will lead to loss of nutrients from the hay, and aging leads to a dramatic loss in vitamins A and E.”

The Best Time to Source High-Quality Forage

“It’s best to secure your hay supply for the year soon after the hay is harvested, as you will have more choices and prices are often lower due to it being readily available,” says Huntington. Some suppliers might be able to keep bales for you if you can’t store a large load for the entire year.

He also says large round or square bales of hay are less expensive than small square bales. If you’re looking to keep costs as low as possible, this might be a good option when feeding horses in paddocks or fields. 

Testing and Identifying Hay Quality

You can observe, feel, and smell a few indicators of hay quality. “You should be looking for hay that is leafy and green if it’s an alfalfa, and green and soft if purchasing a grass hay,” says Huntington. High-quality hay is typically soft, which also indicates it is less abrasive for the horse to chew and for their digestive system.

“Good-quality hay of any species should have a fresh, sweet smell, and it’s important to avoid any hay that has signs of mold or a stale, moldy smell,” says Huntington. “Dusty hay should also be avoided as this can irritate the horses’ airways and lead to equine asthma. Be aware of toxic contaminants like blister beetles in alfalfa, toxic weeds in various types of hay, or even foreign bodies like small animal carcasses, which can create a risk of botulism.”

While you can make some assessments about the hay’s quality on your own, there is no substitute for testing its nutritional content via a hay analysis.

“This type of service is offered by several labs, including Dairy One and EquiAnalytical,” says Huntington. Depending on the type of test you order, a hay analysis will tell you the protein, fiber, starch, and sugar levels in the hay, as well as mineral levels.

Take-Home Message

The best type of hay depends on what your individual horse needs. If you need help choosing the right hay for your horse, contact an equine nutritionist. You can tell a lot about your hay by visually inspecting it and smelling it, but getting it analyzed will help you understand its nutrient levels and quality and whether it is the right forage for your horse.

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