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.

9 Replies to “Stretching Your Horse Hay Supply”

  1. Your photo of the uncovered round bale makes me cringe…I have seem more horses screwed up, colic, founder, heaves from moldy, nasty round bales…Horses are NOT cows-
    if your cow is heavey , you can eat it…if your horse gets heaves you sell it or out it down!
    If you HAVE to use round bales, put them under a safe cover or in something like a hay hut…and monitor them!!!!
    My horses do NOT do round bales…

    1. Hello Patti, Round bales for horses can be somewhat controversial, you are correct. However, there are many folks who successfully use them – and the key is really in the last point of the original blog post: Knowing Your Supplier. There are hay farmers who will pay special care to making round bales, store them indoors, etc, to ensure they are selling quality products to horse owners. As with any hay you purchase, the responsibility is on the owner to check any hay they feed, regarless of baling style, before they feed it.
      Thanks for the reminder! Gina T.

      1. I use round bales for all our horses. They are kept under cover at all times and are as fresh as square baled hay. We use a feeder and a slow feed net on the bales over the winter and feed out the hay from the round bale in smalller slow feed nets over the summer.
        A good supplier can give you quality hay in a round bale.
        We never use ones stored outside or that are dusty as I agree these can harm a horse.

    2. I have fed my horses round bales in a feeder uncovered. Seeing as how I have 3 horses that can devour a round bale in 3 or 4 days I don’t think that mold and mildew are an issue. And with my system we have very little wasted hay… sure it is more work on my part but to save the hay it is worth it.

  2. Hi there,
    I was just wondering what style/ type of feeder you would recommend for small bales, even a design I could make myself.
    I have 1 horse, (perhaps 2 in the future) who gets fed hay 3-4 x a day (when grass is not available)

    1. Hello Arleigh, Thanks for the question. Your best bet is to stop in to your local farm store and check out their available options. You might find something as simple as a hay net will help you. If you are a DIY type person, then a simple solid wooden box can help – you could either attach it to a stall wall, or put it up on short legs out in the pasture or paddock. Just make sure any nails are securely pounded in to prevent injury.
      Thanks~ Gina T.

  3. I am wondering about Chaffe Hay? My friend has bales available. I feed grass hay & supplement with this. It keeps them chewing and my last cube of alfalfa was less than desireable so I have been suplemeting with this. It seems pretty rich but I give them about 5lbs. each twice a day. In Colorado so cold temps here. Thanks Barbara

    1. Hello Barbara, Thank you for the question. We would encourage you to find out the nutritional profile of the Chaffe hay and evaluate it alongside the rest of your feeds. We do recommend keeping at least 0.5% of the horse’s bodyweight being fed in long-stemmed roughage per day, so at 10lbs of Chaffe hay per day, you might be compromising that in their diet.
      Thank you ~ Gina T.

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