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.

The Problem With Quick Hay Transitions

Hay Representing the importance of a gradual transition when switching hay sources for your horseTo 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.

The Importance of Gradually Transitioning Hay Sources

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.

At Nutrena, we believe proper nutrition plays the biggest role for a lifetime of health and happiness for every horse. That’s why Nutrena horse feeds are specifically formulated for every life stage and activity level. 
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18 Replies to “Changing Hay Sources for Horses”

  1. This is exactly what has happened to me, however I am the horse owner and own my own place. I had to buy hay from a different supplier this year and it is really grassy first cut, soft and no weeds. Unfortunately, my Morab mare that has always been sort of a sensitive digestive system gal, had a flare up immedieatly with looser manure, excessive gas and sometimes just plain old cowpie manure. After diligently trying everything, I inadvertantly tossed a bale of courser hay down from the hayloft and was feeding it since I had tossed it down. The problem went away almost within 24 hours. But I was limited on the courser hay and had to resort to the grassier stuff. I know that I caused the upset in her digestive system and now have her on FORCO to counteract and get things back on track. Lesson well learned.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Carrie! Sorry you had to experience that, but it’s a perfect example of why slow transitions, when possible, are always best.

      Thanks ~ Gina T.

  2. I was raised on a horse farm in VT. every year my parents would get 4 tractors of hay out of CANIDA and 6 tractors local hey was Always done on a 1-1 share because of the Race horses had to travel over northern NY state VT Mass, NH, Maine. for Sire Stakes Races. we always tried to cover the whole change of area to cover brining in hay from all over. that was way back in the 50 befor I was born.

  3. Hi..i have a ottb mare in foal for aug 2013…she has been loosing weight ..her hinny is getting narrow..ribs are starting to show..backbone is protruding andhip bones are more not hapoy and very concerned and i board my mare at a stable that the barn managers goes too..her routines are very off and niot sure she is fetting enough..what should schedule of feeding be like ??..and type of hay.?right niw she us feeding timothy alfalfa mix..can you help
    .no grain has been supplimented but i want to know if im on the right track wanting to feed her finishing touch feed this wise !??.thx so much

    1. Hi Brenda, You are right on track to be concerned. With a foal on the way, this mare definitely needs more than just hay. The hay mix you have is probably fine, but she needs to be getting as much of it as she will eat, and then you also need to be providing her with an additional source of calories & nutrients to support the growth & development of the foal. The mare is depleting her own body reserves of calories and nutrients in order to give to the foal what it needs. If she’s losing weight, that’s a sure sign she is in trouble.

      We would suggest a feed designed specifically for broodmares & foals, such as our Life Design Mare & Foal, or SafeChoice Original. These products will provide her not only the calories she needs to get her back in to condition, but also the extra protein, vitamins, and minerals she and the foal need, in order for her to stay healthy and for that foal to have it’s best possible chance of developing properly.

      If you have any further questions, please do let us know. Thanks ~ Emily L.

  4. I’m going to be a first time horse owner and i’m buying a horse off a woman that is feeding her horse Bermuda / Alfalfa hay and i know don’t want to switch feeds wrong and hurt my horse!
    Any advice?

    1. Hello Mazie! Best of luck to you with your new horse!

      The first recommendation we would make is to ask the current owner to send along a few bales of the current hay – buy them from her if you have to. Then, use that temporary supple to transition to the hay you are able to access in your area. If you can get the same type of hay, great. If not, transition over a couple days by combining the old and new sources, so as not to make an abrupt switch in the middle of an already stressful situation for the horse.

      As for what to switch to, this will largely depend on what is available in your area, as hay supplies vary around the country. Talk to your local feed store, other area horse owners, or local barn managers about the best places to find quality hay in your area.

      Hope this helps! Good luck ~ Gina T.

      1. I have the same problem, my first horse is coming home from where she is boarded and the boarder doesn’t feel I need to transition the hay so she doesn’t want to exchange or sell me any. I have only been able to buy 2nd crop and she feeds first crop. The horse is definitely overweight as well. FORCO isn’t sold in my area of Maine… any help?

  5. Hello. I have a mare that I have been feeding very expensive grass hay to for the past several years. As long as I have owned her, I have never fed coastal hay. I need to convert her to a coastal and or Tifton because of monetary reasons. I am just worried about the switch primarily for colic reasons. Is the main focus on the switch to do it at a slow pace, mixing the two types of hay? I have never had her colic before or even have any digestive troubles whatsoever, so I sure don’t care to start now! Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Teresa, Thanks for checking in! Yes, the main focus is to simply switch slowly over a course of 5-10 days. You will also want to keep an eye on her condition over the coming month or two, as the change in nutrition between the types may cause a change in her fat and/or muscling levels. You may find her needing more or less than she is receiving now. We would suggest conducting a Body Condition Scoring prior to the switch and perhaps taking a few photographs, so you can be sure of her condition before you start.
      Good luck ~ Gina T.

  6. Hi!
    I added a half to half supply of a new supply of hay in one net.
    I have now fed a full net of the new supply, and I am worried about the transition.
    It’s from the same area, but looked a bit greener.
    I’m awfully worried now I have, can anyone offer any help?

    1. Hello Mads, Thanks for the question. Mixing some together is better than not at all. Your horse should be OK, just keep an eye on his health to be sure.
      Thank you ~ Gina T.

  7. I rescued a mare off a kill lot in December. As I had no history, I was flying by the seat of my pants. She got only bermuda hay for the first 3 days. Then I started her on small amounts of a low carb, high fat feed. (She was a little underweight but not horrible) However the other thing I did was to add some psyllium to her feed a couple of times a week for the first two weeks. She didn’t seem interested in a salt block so I also put about a half a teaspoon of plain salt in her feed. She was in a small pasture by herself so monitoring her water intake was easy. She made the feed transition smoothly and my vet approved of my line of attack. As soon as I felt comfortable with her digestive system adaptation, she was wormed.

  8. I have a gelding 14 yrs old. And he was raised on bearded wheat hay. When we bought him we moved and he started eating coastal we’ve had him for about a year and half and he just keeps getting thinner and thinner. He’s had teeth done, wormed regularly, gets pelleted feed 2x a day. Please any ideas help is greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Tami,
      Thank you for your interesting question about your 14 year old gelding that is getting thinner while being fed coastal hay and a pelleted feed. Weight loss measured by Body Condition Score is loss of fat and indicates his energy intake (Calories) is too low to maintain condition. Weight loss due to muscle mass loss is primarily due to inadequate amino acid (building blocks of protein) intake.
      There may be multiple factors to consider:
      1. Coastal hay may be moderate in energy and low in protein (particularly essential amino acids).
      2. The pelleted feed you are using may not be being fed at high enough level or is not fortified to make up for energy level and amino acid (protein) level of the hay.
      3. He may have other health issues, although it sound like you have done the right things with de-worming and dental care.
      4. He is approaching age where he might have some loss of digestive efficiency, depending on his care before you got him.

      You may want to consider using a Senior Horse Feed, along with your hay, that is fortified with lysine and methionine (first 2 essential amino acids to help build muscle) and that contains some pre and pro biotics to help improve digestion. Start feeding the Senior Horse Feed according to directions, probably about 0.5% of desired body weight ( if he should weigh 1000 pounds, you would start with 5 pounds per day, split into 2 feedings) and gradually increase the feeding rate until he starts to gain weight. Senior feeds are generally controlled starch and sugar and are very safe to feed. They also contain added vegetable oil as a source of energy.

      Best wishes,
      Roy J.

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