Determining the Value of Rained-On Hay

George eating hay in his paddockRain occurring while cut hay is laying in the field causes both yield and quality losses that reduce the value of the crop as an animal feed and a marketable commodity.

Weather-induced losses are caused by:

  1. Prolonged plant respiration reducing soluble carbohydrates and overall energy content
  2. Leaching of soluble carbohydrates, protein, and certain minerals from the hay
  3. Leaf shattering and loss, removing the highly digestible and high protein portion of the forage
  4. Microbial activity metabolizing soluble carbohydrates and reducing energy content
  5. Color bleaching

How much does rainfall reduce dry matter yield?

Several researchers have studied the effects of rainfall on cut alfalfa. Wisconsin researchers measured dry matter losses of 22% when alfalfa was exposed to 1 inch of rain after 1 day of drying (curing). Similar hay dried without rain damage lost only 6.3% of the initial yield. Losses appear to be greatest after partial drying of the forage has occurred. In this same study, alfalfa exposed to 1.6 inches of rain over several days suffered a 44% loss in dry matter. Michigan researchers conducted several different studies to examine the effects of rainfall on field cured alfalfa. The first study reported maximum dry matter losses of 34%. In a second study, rainfall intensity was kept constant at about 0.7 inches but spread over periods of 1 to 7 hours. Dry matter losses ranged from 4 to 13%, with highest losses occurring when the rain was spread over a longer duration. Overall, dry matter losses were much lower in these experiments even though rainfall amounts were about 2 inches.

Other species have been studies as well. Yields losses of birdsfoot trefoil appear to be less than alfalfa, while red clover shows even less dry matter loss due to rain, and grasses suffer the least amount of dry matter losses. Dry matter losses are most crucial to the person responsible for baling the hay. Dry matter losses usually represent a significant decrease in income since less hay is available for baling, feeding, and selling.

How does rainfall reduce dry matter yield?

Three primary factors are involved in dry matter losses; leaching, respiration, and leaf loss. Leaching is the movement of cell solubles out of the plant. Components of the plant that are very water soluble are leached out of the forage and lost when rain occurs. Unfortunately, most of these compounds are those highly digested by the animal. They include such components as readily available carbohydrates and soluble nitrogen, minerals, and lipids. About one-half of the dry matter leached by rain is soluble carbohydrates.

Unlike other livestock, losses of soluble carbohydrate can be beneficial for some horses. Laminitis is a painful and debilitating disease of the horse hoof. Laminitis typically occurs during periods of increased or rapid intake of water soluble and nonstructural carbohydrates. In order to manage lamintic horses and reduced amounts of carbohydrates in harvested forage, horse owners have resorted to soaking hay. A number of research trials have confirmed removal of carbohydrates from hay by soaking in either 30 minutes of warm or 60 minutes in cold tap water. Soaking hay is a cumbersome, messy, and time consuming process. Purchasing rained-on hay with naturally low levels of carbohydrates is a possible alternative.

Respiration (breakdown of soluble carbohydrates by plant enzymes) occurs at nearly 2% dry matter per hour in fresh forage, and declines almost in proportion to the decrease in moisture content until the plant reaches approximately 60% moisture. Every time the forage is wetted by rain, respiration is either prolonged or begins again in cases where the cured forage was below 60% moisture. In either case, additional dry matter is lost.

There is some disagreement in the research literature regarding the amount of leaf loss that occurs in cut alfalfa as a direct result of rainfall. In Wisconsin studies, leaf loss ranged from 8 to greater than 20% as a percent of the initial forage dry matter when rainfall amounts were from 1 to 2.5 inches. In Michigan studies, direct leaf loss was much lower (0.5 to 4.2%). Perhaps the issue of leaf loss from rainfall is a mute point. Experience and common sense tell us that rain damaged alfalfa is more predisposed to leaf shatter after it dries, and rainfall often means additional raking and more lost leaves.

How does rainfall intensity and forage moisture affect losses?

Research is conclusive on these two points. Given the same amount of total rainfall, a low intensity rain will result in more leaching of soluble compounds than a high intensity rain. Also, as forage moisture content declines, it is more prone to dry matter loss from rain. In Wisconsin rainfall studies, the maximum loss in dry matter (54%) was a treatment where 2.5 inches of rain fell on hay that was nearly dried.

How does rainfall affect forage quality?

Perhaps nothing is more frustrating than to see excellent quality alfalfa turn into unsuitable feed with each passing rain and subsequent raking. Most rainfall studies are in agreement that wetting of field dried alfalfa has little impact on protein concentration. For rained-on hay, it is common to see relatively high protein values in comparison to fiber concentrations, unless significant leaf loss occurs. With the leaching of soluble carbohydrates, structural fibers (acid and neutral detergent fibers) comprise a greater percent of the forage dry matter. Depending on numerous factors, the digestibility of rained-on hay may decline from 6 to 40%. Changes in fiber components are thought to occur by indirect mechanisms, where the respiratory activity of microorganisms has a concentrating effect on fiber components by oxidizing carbohydrate components; additional fiber is not made during the wetting process.


Rained on hay can be a suitable forage, but quality depends on several factors. Forage quality tends to be retained if rain occurs soon after cutting when the forage has had minimal time to dry; the rainfall was a single event compared to a multiple day or drawn-out event; rainfall intensity was higher versus a longer, lower intensity event; and the forage has not been re-wetter numerous times. Rained on hay is actually beneficial for horses prone to laminitis and other metabolic disorders because of its reduced carbohydrate content. Analyzing forage for nutrient content is recommended, but can be especially useful when determining the quality of rained on hay.

This article is reprinted with permission from Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin and Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at

Changing Hay Sources for Horses

As a horse owner, I have moved quite a few horses around and recently moved my gelding to a new boarding facility, so thought this would be a good opportunity to share one aspect of my experience. 

To help maintain as much consistency in his routine as possible, I made sure that I had 2 weeks’ worth of hay to take with me to help keep his diet consistent throughout the move and to allow for a gradual transition to the new hay. 

When I told the barn managers at the new facility that I was bringing a few bales of hay over, they seemed a little surprised at this and told me not to worry about it, because they had really high quality hay.  I asked them if they would recommend a sudden change in a horse’s grain ration, and immediately they said of course not, due to colic risk. I replied, “Then why would you switch their hay cold turkey, when it makes up 60 – 70% of the horses diet?” and watched their expressions as they realized the point I was making.

As a result, along with keeping his grain ration and meal times consistent with the previous routine, a gradual transition from the previous hay to the new hay was done over a 2 week period.  For the first couple of days he received his “old” hay only, and over time we incrementally replaced a small portion of his “old hay” with the “new hay” so that at 2 weeks post-move, he was completely switched over without any problems or decline in performance. 

As horse owners, it is important to keep in mind that ANY sudden changes in diet, including fresh pasture and hay, can disrupt the environment in the gut where communities of microbes reside.  Consequently, this disruption in the microbial population and digestive process can put the horse at risk for GI upsets (e.g. excessive gas production, colic, diarrhea, discomfort, etc.). The energy and nutrient content in hay can vary drastically depending on the plant species, geography, soil conditions, plant maturity at harvest, climate conditions, baling and storage methods, etc.  Even hay that comes out of the same field from consecutive cuttings can have large differences in quality and nutrient content that should be considered. 

It takes approximately 3 weeks for the microbes in a horses gut to adapt to dietary changes, thus making slow, gradual transitions over a 2 – 3 week period important to help prevent GI upset.  When it isn’t possible to make a full two week transition, then allow for as much of a gradual transition as possible even if is only over 2 – 3 days.  Providing dietary pre- and probiotics can also help support gut microbes through dietary changes especially if they are rapid.

Stretching Your Horse Hay Budget

We all know that next to water, forage is the most important part of a horse’s diet. Without it they just can’t survive.

With the high prices of forage there are a few ways you can get a little more out of the forage you feed.

  1. Start by selecting the best quality hay your budget will allow – higher quality means more nutrition in every bite. 
  2. If practical, weigh out the appropriate amount of hay your horse should eat at each feeding so that the excess isn’t wasted. On average, a horse should eat between 1.5-2% of his body weight in forage per day.
  3. You may also choose a feed that contains yeast cultures (prebiotics) and direct fed microbials (probiotics) like Lactobacillus Acidophilus. These elements will help your horse’s hind gut better digest and utilize the forage it takes in.
  4. If your horse is on pasture, a good practice may be to divide your pasture into sections and rotate sections on a frequent basis to allow for maximization of forage produced.
  5. If hay or pasture is in truly short supply, try utilizing a hay extender product.  While it is always beneficial to keep at least some long-stemmed roughage in the diet, using a hay extender can make the few bales of hay you have last quite a bit longer.