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.