As we are in the middle of a cold and snowy winter at this writing, it is likely that horses are being fed great amounts of hay — morning, evening and every time in between — as their major source of food and roughage. Most horse keepers will have their barns filled with enough hay to see their horses through until at least the springtime when pasture grass starts to grow and they can be turned out again. And as long as the hay is dry, not moldy or too dusty, many horse keepers believe that “hay is hay” and are satisfied that their horse’s feeding requirements will be taken care of, without bothering to have their hay tested to check its nutritional value. However, the well informed horse owner will go a step further and have their hay tested — for a number of reasons:

  1. A winter’s supply of hay is expensive — and knowing the nutritional value of that hay will help you to calculate just how much hay to feed your horse, depending on its size, breed, age, state of health/body type, metabolism and level of activity. By feeding “a square bale a day per horse” for example, you may find that you’re overfeeding in some instances, having more manure and waste to clean up than is necessary; or on the other hand, you could be sacrificing your horse’s nutritional needs that might require supplements for its good health and well-being.
  2. Knowing the amount of vitamins and minerals (such as iron) in your hay is important so that you’ll know how much and which types to supplement in your horse’s feed. In the case of a higher than desired level of iron, for example, you can counteract the high level of iron by supplementing more zinc, copper and manganese to better balance out these trace minerals.
  3. If your horse is overweight, suffers from Cushing’s Disease, is insulin resistant or has other metabolic conditions, you’ll need to know the sugar and starch level of the hay you’re feeding, as feeding too much sugar and starch to a horse with any of these medical conditions can be dangerous. High levels of sugar and starch can be reduced by soaking the hay before feeding it.
  4. Feeding concentrated feeds or grain will be impacted by the nutritional composition of your hay. If the hay tests high in nutritional value and in the daily requirements for your particular horse’s needs, you might find that concentrated feeds and grain are not even necessary — saving you more money in the long run.

As can be imagined, the nutritional value of your hay will vary greatly, depending on the types of grasses and legumes that it is comprised of, as well as the soil type, amount of moisture in the growing season, how early or late in the season it was cut, and how well it was cured. Even using hay from the same hay field can vary from year to year — for example, if the hay was cut early during ideal weather conditions, it will have the highest degree of nutrition. If, however, the hay season was a rainy one, and the hay was cut late, it will include more overripe and stemmy material, and will contain less nutritional value than if it had been cut earlier.
So how does one go about taking a hay sample, and where can you get it tested? I contacted our local Cornell Cooperative Extension agency via email, and received a quick response from Nat Tompkins, Agriculture Business Coordinator, and learned it can be done very simply: Cornell Cooperative Extension would take my hay sample and send it up to the Cornell lab in Ithaca, NY, to be tested. Nat also sent along instructions on how to take a sample.
According to the instructions, ‘Quality results will be useful only if the sample represents what the animals will eat. Therefore, take a good random sample from each lot (forage taken from the same cutting at the same stage of maturity, the same forage species and variety, from the same field at the same time.) Remember that the small sample collected may represent several tons of forage. Note the location of each lot in the barn for easy reference when feeding.’
How to collect samples of baled hay
The best way to get a sample is to use a hay core sample, as this allows for the collection of hay from the inside of the hay bale and gives a good representation of what the horse will actually consume. This process uses a drill and a core sampler probe, which is a hollow extension that fits to the drill. The core sampler is drilled into the baled hay and the sample collects inside the hollow part of the probe. This is pulled out of the bale and emptied into a pail for collection, and repeated on several bales. If you do not have a core sampler, you can just pull out smaller samples from different sections of the bale to get an accurate representation of the bale, and repeat for several (about 1/2 dozen) bales.
Take a separate sample from each field and cutting, or from bales in different places in the hay mow.
Mix the different samples in a clean pail and place in a tight, clean, gallon-sized plastic bag — I used a ziplock bag.
Label each bag clearly with your name, address, the sample number, forage mixture/stage of maturity if known, and date harvested.
We brought the sample to our local Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Liberty, NY. I filled out an intake form, which asked for the name and address of the farm, where the sample was taken from, where the hay was baled, etc. (as I do not produce my own hay, I didn’t fill out this part of the form) and was told that they would send the hay sample up to Ithaca to be tested. There is a fee for the testing, and CCE would send out an invoice for payment. It costs $18 for the NIR test, and $23.50 for the NIR Prime test (both prices are per each sample you bring.) The NIR test provides the basic information, whereas the NIR Prime is more comprehensive, and can provide more information about your forage crop, such as starch content and digestibility. I learned that NIR stands for Near Infrared Reflectance spectroscopy, a sophisticated technique for chemical or nutrient analysis based on the interaction of the physical matter (in this case, hay sample) with light in the near infrared spectral region. It can rapidly determine the nutrient composition of the sample and is a fast, cost effective process that is available for evaluation of most forage types.
It takes about a week to 10 days to receive the results of the test; a bit less time if you provide an email address, which I did. I’ll report back on the analysis of my hay sample, and what to do after receiving those results.