Judging Hay Quality for Horses

Because hay is such a common part of a horses diet, judging quality on visual inspection is important, as lab analysis is not always easily available.  Here are three simple things to look for to help you select the best hay for your horses and your money.

  1. The initial check that most people are familiar with is color and smell.  Horse hay should be bright green and smell slightly sweet.  Brown hay indicates either a problem in the baling process, such as being rained on, or age.  Acrid or musty smells generally indicate the presence of mold.
  2. Another sign of good horse hay is the leaf:stem ratio.  The more leaves, the better, since the leaves are where most of the nutrition in the hay is stored.  Hay that has too many hard, woody stems is difficult to digest.  Even if it cheaper, most horses will pick through and leave the bulk of the stems behind, costing more in the long run.  High quality hay is fine-stemmed, pliable, and full of leaves.
  3. Type of hay is another factor.  Grass hays, such as timothy or orchard grass, generally provide sound basic nutrition.  The higher the concentration of legumes, such as alfalfa or clover, the higher the energy content.  High quality alfalfa is generally better than high quality grass hay, but good quality grass hay can be better than average quality alfalfa hay.

The best thing, in the end, is to have hay tested.  This is not always feasible for every load, but if your hay source is consistent from load to load, this may be a good option to get a general feel for what nutrients your hay contains.

23 Replies to “Judging Hay Quality for Horses”

  1. Good article on hay. So many people in our rural area will buy round rolls which are usually fed to cattle & put them out for their horses. They are rained on, walked on. They become moldy, discolored. New horses owners should be warned of the potential dangers of feeding round hay rolls meant for consumption by cattle.

  2. I would normally agree that round rolls are for cattle, however, in my neck of the woods, there are several farmers who intentionally produce round rolls for a number of horse owners who have come to appreciate the how easy feeding round rolls can be. These same owners appreciate the monetary savings when feeding round rolls. Using good quality grass hay round rolls that are placed in covered hay savers can mean a substantial monetary savings for those who own three or more horses. Then there is the savings in the “physical labor” for those who have medical conditions that make it difficult to haul and handle traditional square baled hay that the majority of horse owners feed. I personally use a combination of both types of baled hay with great success. I would have no problem encouraging horse owners to give round rolls a try, just remember to use good judgment when selecting and serving them to your horses.

    Mineral, VA

  3. Not quite enough info on alfalfa v. grass hay in my opinion. Alfalfa is far higher in protein than most horses need, and when processing this overabundant protein they produce more urea, creating more work for the kidneys and requiring increased water intake.

    1. Hi Jamie – Great point! while this post was not intended to delve into the ‘what type of hay to use’ topic, it is definitely good thing to keep in mind. Actually, we will likely write a post on alfalfa vs grass hays in the future.

      In the meantime, alfalfa can be successfully used if fed properly, but we do generally recommend a mixed hay to help lower those protein levels, particularly for less active horses. thanks again for the great comment! ~Gina T.

      1. hi there feed room
        i was wondering if you have done a write up on alfalfa vs grass hay. as i feed alfalfa to all my young foals just a bit worried about over louding there kindnesy.
        thanks you
        chantal bell from australina

        1. Hi Chantal,

          Thank you for your question regarding the use of alfalfa for foals and your concern about overloading their kidneys. This question has been examined pretty extensively. The 2 key elements are the relatively high protein level of alfalfa, frequently 18-21+ % and the relatively high calcium level and high calcium to phosphorus ratio at about 6:1. Foals and other horses receiving straight alfalfa will be getting more crude protein than most require, so they will use the excess protein for energy and will have a bit more ammonia in the blood, which is filtered by the kidneys and excreted in the urine. As long as the animals have access to fresh, clean water, no problem.

          The high level of calcium and the high calcium to phosphorus ratio in alfalfa has been a concern in some areas of the world. An option is to offer a free choice mineral for weanlings and older horses or to select a grain mixture that has been formulated for use with alfalfa to help get the calcium to phosphorus ratio below 4:1. Do NOT add sufficient phosphorus to attempt to bring the calcium to phosphorus ratio down to 2:1. The excess of BOTH in the diet will make it very easy for small bruises to turn to bony lumps.

          In the western United States where alfalfa is feed almost exclusively and frequently fed on the ground on sandy soil, there is an increased incidence of enteroliths or stones forming in the intestinal tract. Best prevention is not to feed on the ground.

          Best wishes,
          Roy A. Johnson

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  5. Another easy thing to look for in hay quality (in my opinion) is DUST! If you shake a flake – you shouldn’t see a ton of dust rising up from the flake!

  6. I want to know why this year feeding grass hay my horses will not gain weight , have
    problems with diarrhea , and it is burning there butts so bad that the hair is falling of
    f and we have to have there tail in braids to keep them from being caked up. could it
    b e over feritizing the fields??????????? all six head are the same

    1. Hi Wendy! You bring up a good question on the hay and digestive upset. I would suggest having your hay tested for Equine Nutrition Values as well as high levels of nitrates that may be residue from fertilizer. Also, please check for any unusual plants baled in to the hay, that may be causing problems in the forage as well.

      Your weight loss for the horses can be two fold, the digestive upsets for one. The other being that in some parts of the country this year, hay was very stressed and poor quality. We have witnessed some horses lose one full body condition score, based on the same feed rates as in the past, due to the fact that the forage is much lower in calorie than previous years.


    2. I would be scared if I were you that there is something really bad in your hay that is damaging your horse’s health. I would get it tested and at the same time investigate procuring an alternate source of hay.

  7. Having been to four Department of Agriculture “Hay Schools” in four states and a hay farmer for decades I can tell you color has nothing to do with hay quality. Some hays are sprayed for color being a bright green. Most hays that are yellow are green when you open the bale, hay testing is the best way to know you have good hay.

  8. I too have experienced weight loss this winter for the first time, and have been feeding grain, and more of it than expected, to compensate. The hay I could get was a first cut and not horribly stemmy, but definitely more coarser stemmed than the 3rd or 4th cut that I normally get from this farmer. They had bad droughts so this 1st cut was all that was available in that shipment. Since then he has blessed me with some 3rd or 4th cut alfalfa which is really nice and my horses have gained the weight back.

  9. Here in Mo. We refer to round bales as round bales, u have to be careful about feeding them we unroll them in the barn and feed only what they will eat. Of course we get just the round bales of good quality hay or grass. Mold is always present in bales that have been left outside, one of our hay producers bales brome in round bales.

  10. I appreciate the tip about getting a hay with more legumes because it will give the horse more energy. My daughters want to get a horse, and I want to make sure we know how to keep it healthy. If we get a horse, I’ll have to look for good quality alfalfa hay for sale.

  11. Acquired some alfalfa hay from a local feed store that appears to be sprayed with a green solvent that makes it look like a false green,, has a smell that is not appealing to horses,, any input?

    1. Hi H. Richey,
      Thank you for your question regarding the alfalfa hay that you purchased that looks like it was sprayed with a green solvent and has a smell that is not appealing to horses. Sight unseen, this sounds like hay that was treated with a forage preservative, probably one that contains organic acids, generally propionic acid or propionic acid and acetic acid. These preservatives are used to allow the hay to be baled with a slightly higher moisture content to help keep the leaves on while still reducing the risk of mold. May smell a bit like vinegar? These acids are called organic acids and they are actually produced in the gastrointestinal tract during normal digestion of forage in horses and in ruminants. Research conducted at the University of Minnesota and other locations has documented the benefits of the treated forage. It does take horses (and humans) a bit to get used to the aroma, but horses generally develop a taste for it quite quickly and consume very well. You may want to research “forage preservatives” for more information.
      Best of luck!
      Roy J.

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