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.

8 Replies to “All Flakes of Hay are Not Created Equal”

  1. Very interesting! I’ve recently purchased rye grass hay on the recommendation of my vet and also found it at a great price ($9 bale) which for us in California is a great price for hay!! My last hay was grass with a little rye and teensy amount of alfalfa. However, I have an Anglo-Arab playing with laminitis (7 yrs old). I still think it was a reaction to shots, but she did great on the rye at the vets, so changing them all over (I have 6). However, I did question the feedings now because the bales are noticibly lighter than the last hay!! With six horses, they are getting a bale a day. I cut out pellets because of the laminits issues and they are all plenty fat at the moment. I’m guessing I should just watch their weight and make sure no one is loosing or would you have a better suggestion? Would love to hear your opinion of rye grass hay as well. New to me. Thanks!

    1. Hi Sally!
      Rye grass hay does work well for horses. It is usually 8- 9% protein as fed. It sounds like you are on the right track with plenty of forage for your horses. I would however recommend the following to maintain their current weight:

      Weigh each horse, and record the information so you have written documentation of the progress of their condition. You can find the proper weight tape formula and body condition scoring record sheets in the Knowledge Center on

      Once you have their weight recorded, weigh one days worth of hay per horse. I like to see 2% of their body weight.

      I know you are concerned about starch and sugar for your Arabian, so I would consider a ration balancer. Products such as our Empower Balance are low in starch and sugar, and provide the essential vitamins, minerals, pre and probiotics and biotin needed to ensure a balanced diet. The daily feeding rate is very low. I would also encourage free choice salt, if not already available.

      Then, review your horses weights and body conditions again in about 30 to 45 days. If you start to find any loss of weight or condition you may need to adjust diets accordingly.

      If you have any additional questions please feel free to contact me.

  2. I breed horses and also have a boarding facility. I weigh out the hay for each horse before each feeding. When a horse arrives at my facility, I ask how much the horse has been fed so I can start from there with their feed program. I usually get an answer that deals with “flakes”, even from experienced horse people. It’s rather shocking. Here in Western Washington, a flake of local grass weighs about 2 pounds, and a flake of alfalfa (shipped in from Eastern WA) can be as much as 7 pounds. Big difference.

  3. I also weigh my horses hay each feeding. It differs from flake to flake in the same bale sometimes! At least this way I know I am being consistent with their rations and can then decide if they need more or less depending on their weight, forage available and the weather conditions.

  4. I board my two horses and for the life of me have the most difficult time in trying to explain to the owner the importance of weighing the feed. She argues that there is not a minimum amount that a horse needs; I have requested 1.5% body weight and she balks. I advocate for my horses on a daily basis. I also feed them soaked bermuda pellets and treat them oatmo.

  5. Finding hay in Texas may be a trick this year due to lack of rain! I have two quarter horses, can anyone tell me what alternatives to hay there are that are safe!

    I usually buy coastal hay! Suggestions welcome!

    1. Hi Reba, Thanks for the question, hopefully some other horse owners may have some suggestions for you. A couple of options from your local feed store may include hay stretcher pellets, or hay cubes. You could also try a product such as Triumph Complete, which is a complete feed that can be used to stretch out your hay supply – we do always recommend feeding at least some long-stemmed forage if possible, but a product like Triumph Complete can extend the life of your supply.
      Thanks! Gina T.

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