Types of Hay Fed to Horses

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Credit: Charlene Strickland Horse owners have a decision when it comes to what hay to feed their horses: grass, legume or mixed?

Credit: Charlene Strickland Horse owners have a decision when it comes to what hay to feed their horses: grass, legume or mixed?

Horse owners have a decision when it comes to what hay to feed their horses: grass, legume or mixed? Warm-season grass hays include bahia grass and Bermuda grass. “In Texas horses are all basically raised on Bermuda grass hay,” said Dr. Larry A. Redmon, professor and State Forage Specialist at Texas A&M University. “They don’t miss alfalfa one bit.”

Cool season grass hays include timothy, orchard grass and tall fescue. Avoid the chance for endophyte (fungus) in fescue; look for endophyte-free Kentucky 31 or a friendly endophyte variety like MaxQ.

The legume alfalfa is palatable and high protein, available in every state. “Alfalfa is a full-season crop,” said Dr. Dan Putnam, University of California Extension Specialist and Forage Specialist. “It’s harvested February through November in the Imperial Valley.” And oat hay is a cereal hay that horses like.

A forage mix can be a combination of legume and grass. Dr. S. Ray Smith, University of Kentucky State Forage Extension Specialist, said, “No class of horse needs the really high protein of good alfalfa. So the mixture of alfalfa and grass typically ranges in mid-teens of the quality of digestibility in a good ration of hay.

“Most people want 40% alfalfa 60% grass, or 60% alfalfa 40% grass. Horse owners with more pleasure horses—they might have a higher percentage of grass: 70% grass, 30% alfalfa.”

Smith noted that grass is more fibrous: “It tends to make more air circulation in the swath so the hay is more ‘fluffy.’ With better air circulation, there’s better curing or drying of the hay. From the buyer’s standpoint, you have more dust-free hay in that mixture.”

Buying Quality

Look for green, leafy hay, cut in mid-bloom and not overly mature.For nutrients, ask for results of a lab analysis from samples collected using a bale probe.

Redmon advised, “Get it analyzed and find out what you’ve got. Once you find the guy who produces what you’re interested in, then buy from him. It’s $5 in Texas for a crude protein test. Once you know the kind of quality he produces, it makes things much easier.”

Smith said, “Look at the hay and do the quality analysis. Most good hay growers do their own analysis. Yet customers rarely ask for the analysis.”

Match hay to horses with special needs. Hay of low sugar and starch content is better for horses that are insulin-resistant.

Decide if GMO (genetically modified organism) alfalfa is a concern or not. Roundup Ready alfalfa’s been on the market for 10 years.