It’s amazing how quickly the summer has passed… and almost as if by magic, the cooler nights of autumn have mingled in with those last days of summer, turning the leaves to their autumnal glory, and making thoughts focus on preparing for the cold weather to come. For many horse keepers, it means increasing the amount of hay they feed; for those who are fortunate to have their horses pastured all summer, it will signal the time to start introducing hay to their horses’ diet, and making sure that the barn is filled.
In general, horses rely on eating dried grasses or hay in order to keep warm during the cold weather. It is the processing and digesting of this forage that keeps the horse’s internal ‘furnace’ operating well during the winter. The horse is designed to digest primarily forages, as evidenced by the size of the lower gut (cecum and colon) and the presence of bacteria. In addition, horses have fewer digestive upsets and behavioral vices, such as wood chewing and cribbing, when hay is the main portion of the ration, according to the Cooperative Extension Service of Purdue.
In order to keep their digestive tracts functioning properly, horses require at least one percent of their body weight each day in long-stem dry matter. This can be fulfilled in a number of ways, but once the ration size is less than one inch in length (such as in pellets or cubes) problems can occur with the rate of passage, digestibility and behavioral vices as mentioned above. In addition, horses fed a diet that includes a large amount of grain are more susceptible to equine colic.
Some may wonder what is the best hay to feed horses — can all horses be fed the same kind or type of hay? What about round bales? And how much hay should be fed? And so a bit of research provided some answers.
The hay most often fed to horses is comprised of grasses, such as timothy, orchardgrass, Bermuda grass, tall fescue; or legumes, such as alfalfa and red clover. The legumes provide more protein and calcium than the grasses. The more leaves the hay has, the more nutrients will be found in the hay, as the leaves are the site where photosynthesis take place, and will have the most nutrients concentrated there. Generally the greener the hay is, the better. The green color indicates hay that has been cut and cured at the proper time for maximum nutrition.
The more mature or older the hay is when it is harvested, the more fiber it contains and becomes “stemmier”, even unpalatable. And, hay that has been stored in the barn for a year or more will become drier and more brittle, causing leaves to shatter and result in more hay wastage. In addition, the dryness will most likely cause the hay to be dustier.
Be sure you check over the hay you are purchasing. Ideally, the hay will be green, and should be clean and free of mold and dust. Hay that is brown or in any way indicative of mold should be discarded and not purchased for horses. Even small amounts of mold can inflame the respiratory tract, impair breathing and cause your horse to suffer respiratory distress. In some instances the problem can be so severe as to cause the horse to experience difficulty in breathing even while at rest. A horse that consumes moldy hay can suffer from permanent lung damage, a condition commonly referred to as “heaves.”
A question that often arises is whether or not horses can be fed round bales. The answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Traditionally, horses were fed square bales, which are easy to handle and store; but more and more round bales are being made and are now available for sale. Horses may be fed round bales that are stored in a barn and are free of mold; and if placed outside, only if there are enough horses to consume the entire bale within a few days. If you are feeding a round bale out-of-doors to only one or two horses, chances are great that the exposure to the elements will cause mold to form before the entire bale is consumed; or at the very least, your horses may overeat, which can also cause problems. To that end, horses will waste less hay if fed from a feeder — be sure to monitor how much hay your horse eats, and cut back on the amount you feed if there is a lot or waste.
You should not buy more hay than you can store safely in a dry place and out of the elements. Generally, you can save a bit on the price of hay if you have adequate storage for a winter’s worth, and if the hay can be picked up right from the field, saving the farmer the extra step of storage inbetween.
And lastly, how much hay to feed will depend on the horse(s) you are feeding, as different ages/sizes/uses/sex of horses will dictate how much hay is adequate for each.
In order to estimate how much hay to feed your horse, start with a general rule of thumb for mature horses where hay is the only forage they receive (no pasture) figure on about 600–700 pounds of hay per horse per month. Of course, large horses, heavily working horse and lactating mares will require more, as will horses kept outdoors in winter; ponies, weanlings and smaller inactive horses will need less. Many horse owners figure on a square bale per mature horse per day in winter, and less in summer.
Your hay bill may be less if you pay by the ton, as bales will vary widely in weight, even from the same dealer. But many local farmers who bale and sell hay do not sell by the ton, but rather by the bale. It is always best to know your hay supplier, or ask for a recommendation from a friend or neighbor. Good hay suppliers are hard to come by, especially in years of bad weather, and are not to be treated lightly. Being considerate in notifying your supplier of how much hay you’ll figure on purchasing for the winter and paying your hay bill on time will go a long way in establishing a good working relationship, knowing you can depend on each other.