Tips on Growing and Selling Horse Hay

Five horse hay growers in Minnesota share their tips on growing and selling horse hay, including how they monitor moisture throughout the baling process, how they work around the weather, what types of forages they grow and the investment it takes to grow and harvest hay. The farmers also share their advice for individuals wanting to grow and/or sell horse hay and their greatest challenges associated with growing and selling horse hay.

This video was shared with permission from Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

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.

Conclusion

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 http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

Top Tips for Feeding Your Horse This Spring

Toby GrazingFeeding your horse during the longer days and warmer temperatures of the spring season can often be different than your chosen winter-feeding program.

Keep the following diet and feeding considerations in mind to help your horse smoothly transition from winter to spring:

Tip 1: Monitor Your Horse’s Body Condition

We all know every horse is different. This means that some horses will have gained winter weight from working less, while other horses will have shed a few pounds keeping warm in the cold. Before even thinking of altering your horse’s spring-feeding regimen, first evaluate his body condition. With the help of your veterinarian or a knowledgeable equine professional, determine if your horse is too skinny, too fat or carrying just the right amount of weight.

To monitor your horse’s weight without using a scale, you can utilize the body condition scoring method. This system will help you estimate the fat present on your horse’s body. Once you have estimated the level of fat cover, you will be able to more accurately determine whether you should increase or decrease your horse’s caloric intake.

It is important to note that each horse will require a different body condition level that is dependent on a number of factors, including: age, level of work, breed, current or past injuries, etc.

Tip 2: Don’t Forget About Concentrates (Grain)
Many horses are fed grain on a daily basis. Throughout winter some horses need extra grain to maintain their ideal body weight, while other horses have their grain reduced, due to inactivity. Adjusting the type and amount of concentrate or grain your horse consumes should be done slowly and carefully. A horse’s internal digestive system is built for slow changes.

With this in mind, monitor his level of work and body condition. If your horse’s work level is increased, he might need to receive more grain. Conversely, if his work level remains the same, and he is able to safely consume spring grasses, then your horse might need to receive fewer concentrates.

Whatever adjustments are made, make sure your horse is still receiving the appropriate level of essential nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Achieving this may require a change in the feed product being used. Horses requiring additional calories could be bumped up to a higher-calorie performance horse feed, while those needing fewer calories could go down to a ration balancer product.

Tip 3: Horses Tend to Eat A lot of Forage
It is no secret that horses eat a lot of forage. However, what most people don’t know is that a horse’s forage is only as good as the fiber that it contains. Pastures often lay dormant during winter, which can reduce a horse’s natural intake of grass forage. As a result, many equestrians will feed their horses extra forage via hay or beet pulp. This feeding tactic can be great for the cold months, but it should be re-evaluated in spring.

When spring arrives, most pasture paddocks will be filled with new grasses rich in sugar. Monitor your horse’s body condition score as it begins to consume the rich green grasses. Horses that gorge themselves on spring grasses may encounter some serious health issues. For example, overweight horses or those with Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance or laminitis will need to be carefully monitored. High sugar and starch levels of spring grass can aggravate the latter conditions. In these instances, reduced turnout time or a grazing muzzle can help limit pasture intake for certain at-risk horses.

Tip 4: Lots of Fresh Water
This last suggestion holds true in any season: Horses need to have access to plenty of fresh water 24 hours a day. Warmer temperatures and an increase in body sweat can result in dehydration. Make sure that your horse has water access post workout. Some equestrians also add electrolyte supplements to their horse’s feed. These supplements can help replenish essential nutrients during particularly warm or hot weather. Of course, consult your veterinarian if you have further questions.

Spring is a fantastic time of year for horses and equestrians. It is a chance to shed bulky winter clothing and spend time riding to your heart’s content. However, spring is also a time that a horse’s body condition should be properly monitored. If you need to make any changes to your horse’s spring feeding regime, be sure to make the changes slowly and consult a nutritionist or your veterinarian for advice or guidance.

Ashly Snell works at Dover Saddlery and enjoys eventing with and caring for her two Dutch Warmbloods. She has been an avid equestrian for 20 years.

Stretching Your Horse Hay Supply

This article is courtesy of Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota.

Most horse owners have noticed that the price of feed (both hay and grain) has increased.  At a hay auction in Sauke Center, MN, the 10-year average for horse quality hay (101-125 relative feed value) is $100 a ton; however, this year (2013), that same hay is averaging $220/ton.  There are several key factors that have contributed to these increases, including extreme weather patterns (i.e. drought), high oil prices, currency fluctuations, a struggling economy, and a market that makes growing corn and soybeans more profitable and less risky compared to hay.     

Horses have evolved on diets composed entirely of forage. Therefore, forage should be the primary component of a horse’s diet (at least 2/3 of their diet). Thus, horse owners, unlike other livestock owners, have few options other than forages to use to meet their horse’s nutritional requirements. 

However, there are management practices that can help horse owners ride out high feed prices:

  • Horse owners should take a critical look at equine body condition and maintain a body condition score of 5 (on a scale of 1 to 9).
  • Horses that maintain their weight on forage-only diets do not usually require any concentrate (grain).
  • A well-formulated ration balancer (concentrated vitamin and mineral mix) will ensure that vitamin and mineral needs are being met when dried hay is the sole dietary component.  Even the best, nutrient-dense hay will be deficient in essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, copper, zinc, iodine, selenium and manganese (in alfalfa hay).

While all forage offered to horses should be free of dust, mold, weeds, and foreign debris, the nutrient density of the forage offered can vary depending on the type of horses being fed. Forage selection should be based on horse needs, as there is no one forage best suited for all classes of horses.

  • For example, providing nutrient dense forage like vegetative alfalfa hay to ‘easy keepers’ can create obesity issues; however, that same hay would be a good option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements.
  • Have hay tested for quality to help determine how much and what type is best to feed to individual horses.
  • Keep in mind that higher quality hay usually demands a premium price and such hay is not needed by all groups of horses. 
  • Finally, older hay, if stored properly, is usually a great option for horses. 

Plan ahead and know how much hay you need. Horses eat roughly 2 to 2.5% of their body weight in feed (hay plus grain) each day.  For example, an average 1,000 pound horse will eat around 20 to 25 pounds of feed daily, plus water. Weighing the amount of feed offered will help to avoid over-feeding. 

When calculating hay needs, make sure to account for wasted hay. In a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota, feeding round-bales to horses without a round-bale feeder resulted in 57% waste, while using different feeders ranged from 5 to 33% hay waste.  Although feeders do cost money, all round-bale feeders tested paid for themselves (due to reduced amounts of waste) in less than 10 months with hay valued at $200/ton.  A Texas study found that when horses were fed in a box stall, waste from feeding small square bales off the ground was 7% compared to only 1% waste when hay was fed in a feeder.  Using a feeder, regardless of bale-type, is essential to reducing waste and stretching your hay supply. 

Finally, have a good working relationship with a hay supplier to ensure a consistent and reliable source of hay.  Consider adding hay storage space to reduce the effects of price and seasonal fluctuations.  For example, hay is sometimes more expensive in the winter vs. the summer.  Buy hay early (do not wait for second or third cuttings) and budget for the price increase by re-evaluating how many horse you can afford to feed.

Flash Fred – Our Inherited Horse

We inherited Flash Fred (my daughter has a creative naming process) from a friend of ours. This horse was slowing down in his old age and could no longer keep up with the rigorous lifestyle required on a full scale cattle ranch. In return for a good place to live out his last years we obtained this 20 year old (give or take a few years) sweet and gentle gelding for our girls. For us it was the perfect arrangement.

The horses that help our kids love horses are truly priceless.

Fred arrived in the middle of July and he was in surprisingly good body condition; I rated him about a 4.75. The problem was, we didn’t know anything about what he had been eating or what his previous history was, other than when we picked him up he was in a partial drylot but had just come in off of dryland pasture.

We decided to start Fred off slow. We had some irrigated grass pasture that we wanted to utilize but we didn’t want to turn him loose on it until we saw how he handled feed. For the first week he stayed in a drylot pen at our barn – he had plenty of room to wander around and get used to his new surroundings. We also gave him free choice plain white salt and plenty of clean, fresh water. For feed he got 2% of his bodyweight in medium quality grass hay and a ration balancer with a full vitamin and mineral package. He tolerated all this well (he also tolerated our 2 and 4 year old pretty well, which was great news!), so after the first week we worked on turning him out to pasture.

This was a slow process – many times new horses have a long history that new owners know nothing about: a tendency to colic, a predisposition to laminitis, allergies to certain leaves or weeds,  and the list goes on and on.

We didn’t want to take any chances with Fred, so his first taste of freedom in the irrigated green grass was a measly 20 minutes. He looked at me like I was crazy when I caught him right back up and put him in his pen! The next day he was out for a little bit longer, and gradually as the days went by we increased his time on grass by 20 minute increments until we had a good idea that he was doing well and not having any digestive upsets. To get him on a full day’s turn out took over two weeks – but keeping him healthy was definitely worth it. We continue to make sure that he always has access to clean, fresh water, plain salt and we give him a small flake (about 5 lbs.) of hay when we bring him in at night along with the maintenance ration of balancer. We score his body condition once a month, and so far the grass is agreeing with him! 

Today Fred is thriving – he is enjoying his relaxing grass pasture and our little girls are enjoying him! As the weather turns cold and the grass goes away, we will get him going on a senior type feed – so stayed tuned for that journey!

All Flakes of Hay are Not Created Equal

I was called out to farm to review a horse that had started to lose weight.  The owner explained to me that the horse had been diagnosed with ulcers, so her vet recommended alfalfa hay. She purchased some nice quality second cutting, and had the test results which showed the hay to be exceptional quality, and containing 1Mcal (1000 calories) per pound. Thus, she could not figure out where the hole in the feeding program was that was causing the horse to lose weight. 

In review, her horses diet was calculated at 21.5 Mcal per day, based on his work schedule and body condition score:

  • 4 flakes of timothy hay per day
  • 4 pounds of grain  per day

Since the horse weighed in at 1000 pounds, we chose to go with 2% of his body weight per day in forage, or 20 pounds.  The old hay had tested at 800 calories per pound. We balanced the diet with 4 pounds of grain at 1430 calories per pound, or 1.43 Mcal.

  • Forage = 16 Mcal
  • Grain = 5.7 Mcal
  • Total = 21 .7 Mcal

The owner explained that she was feeding the same amount of hay as before, and since it was such good quality, it had to be a grain problem.

When we calculated his old diet, each flake of hay averaged 5 pounds each.  That was how we determined 4 flakes would reach the 2% or 20 pound feed rate.  I asked if she had weighed the new hay, and she admitted she had not done so yet.

To her surprise, when we weighed several flakes, they all averaged 3 pounds per flake.  When I showed her the math, the problem was obvious:

  • 1 Flake timothy hay 5lb@ x 4 flakes per day = 20 pounds per day x 800 calories = 16Mcal  (16,000 calories)
  • 1 Flake Alfalfa hay 3lb@ x 4 flakes per day = 12 pounds per day x 1000 calories = 12Mcal (12,000 calories)

With that simple change in hay, she had cut her horse’s caloric intake by 4,000 calories per day over the past month. Armed with this new information, adding more flakes of hay to the daily ration put the horse right back on track.

The Price of Horse Hay

I received a phone call from a farm manager, asking who I purchased my hay from. I told him my hay supplier had excellent quality forage with good protein levels and averaged 1Mcal per pound. I gave him the phone number and he said he would call him for pricing.

While at the county fair this week I saw the farm manager and his students at the 4-H barn, so I asked if he had purchased any hay for his farm. He told me that the supplier I had told him to call was too expensive. He had quoted him $220 per ton, with a 5 ton minimum. Since he was not use to buying by the ton, he inquired as to how many bales that was, and was told it would amount to about 165 bales. The farm manager said he had done the math, and that the bales would be over $6.50 each, which was just outrageous!

I saw hay in his feed stall and asked if that was the hay he purchased. He said yes, and was proud to say it was only $5 per bale. He had purchased 200 bales for $1000. I lifted one of the bales and was surprised how light they were, so I asked if he knew what the hay has cost per ton. He had no idea. I then asked if we could wheel four of the bales over to the scale in the cattle barn to weigh them. “ You and your tons,” he replied…”Why not!”

Feeling certain he had gotten the best of a bargain, he loaded the bales and we took them to the scale. They varied from 36 to 40 pounds each, so we said an average of 40 pounds each. I then asked him to do the math.

200 bales x 40 pounds =8000 pounds or 4 tons.

$1000 /4 tons = $250 per ton.

He realized his “bargain” was not such a great value and laughed, “I know, I know…You don’t buy hamburger by the patty, and you don’t by hay by the bale.”

Forages for Horses

This blog post is courtesy of Jennifer Earing, PhD, University of Minnesota.

Forage selection should be based on horse needs, as there is no one forage best suited for all classes of horses.  For example, providing a nutrient-dense forage like vegetative alfalfa hay to ‘easy keepers’ can create obesity issues; however, that same hay would be good option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements.  With so many forages available, how does one choose the best option??  Differences in the nutritive quality of forages (hay or pasture) are largely based on two factors: plant maturity and species.

Maturity

Regardless of plant species, stage of maturity significantly affects forage quality. 

  • Young, vegetative forages are very nutrient dense and contain fewer fibrous carbohydrates (hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin). 
  • As the plant matures (flowers and seed heads are indicators of maturity), the proportion of fiber in the plant increases, to provide structural support as the plant gets larger.  The increased level of lignin associated with maturation interferes with the digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose by hindgut microorganisms, thereby reducing the digestibility of the forage.  
  • More mature forages also have lower energy and protein levels than their immature counterparts. 

Most horses do well on mid-maturity forages; horses with elevated nutrient requirements benefit from receiving young, less mature forages, while more mature forages are be best suited for ‘easy keepers’.

Plant species

Legumes vs. Grasses
Legumes (i.e. alfalfa and clovers) generally produce higher quality forage than grasses.  Often, legumes have higher energy, protein, and mineral (specifically calcium) content when compared to grasses at a similar stage of maturity, and are typically more digestible and more palatable. Legumes are an excellent source of nutrients for horses; however, a horse’s nutrient requirements can easily be exceeded when fed immature legumes.  Consumption of excess nutrients, particularly energy, may result in obesity or other digestive issues.  Legume-grass mixes or mid- to late-maturity legumes (which are less nutrient-dense) often provide adequate nutrients, without exceeding the horse’s requirements.    

Cool Season Grasses vs. Warm Season Grasses

Cool-season grasses (CSG; i.e. timothy, bromegrass, bluegrass, and orchardgrass) typically have a higher nutritive value compared to warm season grasses (WSG; i.e. bahiagrass, bermudagrass and bluestems).  At a similar stage of maturity, CSG have a higher protein content and lower fiber content.  The higher fiber content in WSGs is due to the fact that they mature and become lignified more rapidly than CSGs.  WSGs in late stages of maturity are typically less digestible and may be less palatable than CSGs.  Consequently, if feeding WSGs it may be advantageous to harvest the forage at an earlier stage of maturity, compared to CSGs.

CSGs store the majority of their carbohydrates as fructans, while WSGs and legumes store their carbohydrates as starch.  Rapid consumption of forages containing high levels of fructans, as with other water-soluble carbohydrates, may trigger laminitis in susceptible horses.  Fructan levels are highest in lush spring pastures and often increase during drought conditions.  Carbohydrate content of forage is an important consideration for owners of horses struggling with chronic laminitis issues, equine metabolic syndrome, and PSSM

Differences in average nutritive values of forages commonly fed to horses are shown in Table 1.

Conclusion

The digestive system of the horse has been designed to efficiently utilize forages, and most horses can fulfill their nutrient requirements on these types of diets.  Matching the nutrient levels in the forage to the nutrient requirements of the horse is one of the primary goals in forage selection.  A variety of factors, including plant species and maturity, should be considered when making this decision.