Estimating Winter Hay Needs

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm representing Estimating Winter Hay Needs

Question: We recently purchased a farm and will be housing our two quarter horses over the winter. They are trail horses who are not ridden during the winter. Because I’ve always boarded my horses, I’m not sure how to estimate how much hay I will need for the winter. Can you provide some guidelines?

Understanding Daily Hay Consumption for Horses at Maintenance

An adult horse at maintenance will consume between 2 – 2.5% of their bodyweight in feed (hay and grain) each day. For example, a 1,000 pound horse fed a 100% hay diet would consume 25 pounds of hay each day.

Calculating Hay Needs for a Single Horse Over the Winter

  • From October 15 to May 15 (when there is no pasture in MN), the horse would consume about 5,350 pounds of hay or 2.7 tons.
  • This would equal 107 fifty pound small square‐bales or six 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 214 small square-bales or 12 round‐bales.
  • It is critical to know the weight of the hay bales; not all bales weigh the same.

If the same horse was receiving 5 pounds of grain each day, their hay needs would be reduced to 20 pounds each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 the horse would consume about 4,280 pounds of hay or 2.1 tons.
  • This would equal 86 fifty pound small square‐bales or five 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 172 small‐square bales or 10 round‐bales.

These estimates assume good quality hay is fed in a feeder to reduced hay waste. When feeding small squares‐bales, hay waste when a feeder was not used (hay fed on the ground) was approximately 13% compared to only 1 to 5% when a feeder was used. When feeding large round‐bales, not using a feeder resulted in 57% hay waste compared
to 5 to 33% hay waste when a feeder was used. Its always best to purchase some extra hay since horses may require additional hay during the cold winter months (depending on their access to shelter).

Ready to ensure your horse is getting the optimum nutrition at feeding time, every time? Find the perfect feed formulated specifically for horse’s needs with our Feed Selector Tool.

Feed Selector tool

Author: Krishona Martinson, PhD, Univ. of Minnesota. Reprinted with permission of the author.

14 Replies to “Estimating Winter Hay Needs”

  1. I heard that you should not feed rye grass to horses because it is higher in sugar than any other grasses, also fescue should not be fed to brood mares or any sex of horse just not a good choice of grass hays, what is your opinion

    1. Hi Mary,

      Thank you for your questions about rye grass and fescue for horses.

      Perennial rye grass may be infected with an endophyte that produces an alkaloid, lolitrem B, that causes rye grass staggers. Endophyte free ryegrass is quite suitable for horses and is quite palatable and nutritious. The sugar content will vary with the maturity of the hay. The less mature the hay, the higher the sugar content. Early vegetative might be 5-6% sugar and early bloom drops to 3-5% sugar. If you are feeding horses that have metabolic issues, I would recommend having the forage tested.

      Tall fescue that is endophyte infected should not be fed to broodmares, particularly in the last 1/3-1/2 of gestation as it produces an alkaloid, ergovaline, that can cause a number of reproductive issues with prolonged gestation, thickened placentas and failure to produce milk being common. It is the endophyte that produces the toxin, not the grass itself. It can also slow down growth in young horses. Endophyte free tall fescue is available and can be used w/o restriction. Unfortunately, the endophyte infested fescue seems to be a bit more hardy than the endophyte free fescue and may come back in a pasture that was treated and reseeded with endophyte free fescue. Testing is available to determine the status of the forage, which is recommended if you are uncertain of the type of fescue, particularly with broodmares or young horses.

      Best wishes,

  2. I’ve always heard horses need 1.5-2% of their body weight in hay. You say 2-2.5. Why the difference?

    1. Hi Margie – Great question. The 1.5% is the recommendation for forage. 2 – 2.5% is the total feed – so can be all hay, or a combination of hay & grain, depending on the specific caloric needs of each horse.

      Hope that helps clarify! Thank you ~ Gina T.

  3. Feeding hay in the winter months can be just a tricking as feeding hay in the summer months with founder prone horses. Weeds, or high fescue seeds in broan grasses can be high in surgar starches, it is best to try to get your hay from the same hay provider. Unfortanely many can not do this as they buy hay as they need, This makes it a little tricker and one has to really fine tooth each bale to make sure no strange weeds or to much seeds or flowers and clovers are in a bale. It will only take a small portion of this to just give a horse a stomache ache and possible colic, it is best to go with less is best in this case if you have to feed this kind of hay.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your question! Can you share a few more details on what conditions are like for your region in the winter, how they compare to your spring and summer months and feeding resources during those times?


      1. I live in North Mississippi, I start feeding hay about the last week of October through the end of March. I am just going to deduct the month of April and May from the previous calculation.

  4. Please help! I moved my horses from a boarding barn in CA to my newly purchases property in VA. They used to get fed grass/hay mix in the a.m., pelleted grass for lunch and one flake of alfalfa for dinner. I used no supplements. In VA I worked up to grazing full time with supplemental hay. I never had my pasture tested. For winter I planted rye grass. They each had free roam/forage on the rye and 10 lbs of 2nd cut grass/alfalfa mix per horse per day with 5 lbs tribute gut health grain in the a.m. This produced a big bloated belly in my POA. My draft cross mare did fine. In the spring I switched to full time forage on the still untested grass pasture, 10 lbs of 2nd cut grass/alfalfa mix per horse per day, removed the grain, added farriers formula and barn bag supplements. My POA is still “fat” (he isn’t fat at the dock or withers, just a big round belly). We treated for ulcers. Still big, round belly. Not hay belly, doesn’t sag – it looks like a balloon that is going to pop. I can feel his ribs but not see them. Weirdly his girth still goes to the same number. The vet says to use a grazing muzzle which I never did (I’m not a fan). Now for this winter in SE VA I didn’t plant the rye grass and let the pasture die out. The horses are out during the day with a trough and 15 lbs of hay to share, they come in at night and each get 10 lbs of hay in a net. They still get farriers formula and barn bag every morning. I want them to get enough forage to facilitate healthy hind gut and generate warmth. I don’t want to hurt them by overfeeding. Do you have any recommendations? Should I included alfalfa vs. the grass mix?

    1. Hey Michele, Great question. The major thing to be aware of is forage quality from California to Virginia can be night and day. In general the western part of the US has some of the best forage quality in the world. The middle Atlantic region can have a very wide variation from high quality to very poor. You seem to be short in calories (seeing/feeling more ribs) and short on amino acids (lack of cover on withers/dock) which is much more common on the east coast than the west. An easy add to your current diet would be our Empower Topline Balance at 1-1.5 lbs/1000 lbs of body weight to get first more amino acids and vitamins/minerals first and foremost. Give that a try for 30 days, then re-evaluate what changes you still need to see.

  5. Hello! I live in NS Canada. We have a QH who has a run in barn – it can be closed up but she is happier with it open. I give her a large slow feed hay net that weighs 10 kg (22lbs) each night. I also give her some loose hay in the PM and AM – outside if it’s nice and in her barn if it’s not. Temps can drop quite low. I also give her a small scoop of hay cubes soaked in warm water in the PM and a half a coffee can of fat and fiber AM and PM. She is a little plump… is this overkill? Should I cut back?

    1. Hello Leila, Great question! If she’s a bit on the plump side, then it may be time to re-evaluate and cut calories somewhere. Exactly how much you feed will depend on her actual body weight. You’ll also want to get specific weights on the hay cubes and the fat and fiber feed you are providing. She should get no more than 2.0-2.5% of her bodyweight per day in feed, so if she’s already getting 22 lbs of hay in her hay net at night, that doesn’t leave much room for more if she’s a 1,000 lb horse. There probably isn’t need for the hay cubes, and then you might consider a ration balancer type product instead of the current feed. In Canada, this is a great product option for you: It is designed to be fed in a very small amount, but deliver the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals your horse needs for overall health, without the calories of a traditional feed. We hope this helps, please let us know if you have further questions!

  6. Please help! We recently bought a farm and have two pastures for our horses in the summertime. How much hay is needed for the summer if horses are in pastures all day everyday?

    1. Hello Emily, Thanks for the question. There are a number of factors that will go into this, so there is no one single answer we can provide. Those factors include: the size of the pasture, the quality of the pasture, which type of grass is available, what your rotation schedule is for the pasture to allow for regrowth, etc. It will also change as the seasons progress – if you get flooded, if you experience drought, and so on. Finally, it will also depend on the current condition of your horses and if they need to gain or lose weight!

      The best measurement is the body condition of your horses, and also how much hay they are consuming each day. If they need to gain weight, or their condition seems to decline or is poor, or they clean up every bit of hay you put out, then provide more quality hay. If their condition is good, and/or they only play with the hay or consume a small amount, you can reduce how much you are feeding every day.

      It will probably be a bit of a guessing game for you for the first year or two that you are on this property. The top end of their needs will still be a roughage intake of 1.5 – 2.0% of their bodyweight, so the maximum you’ll need is still something you can figure out based on the weight of your horses – and far better to have too much on hand than not enough!

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