10 Ways to Optimize and Stretch Horse Hay Supplies

Weather woes; winter injury, a cool and wet spring, flooded hay fields, and frequent rainfall have tightened already short hay supplies in the Midwest, and other areas of the country are facing similar challenges. Flooded fields may have long-term damage from standing water and forage quality will likely take a hit as wet conditions delay cutting. However, horse owners still need to secure hay and should consider these strategies to optimize and stretch hay supplies.

1. Develop a good relationship with at least one horse hay suppliers. Find (and keep) hay suppliers that are trustworthy, communicate well, and produce a quality product. A good hay supplier should be willing to patiently answer questions; stand behind their product; and clearly explain their pricing, delivery, and storage structure. In turn, owners should become educated buyers, be aware of local conditions and prices, and be prepared to buy when the forage is available. Both parties should be understanding of weather conditions, be timely with communications, and be professional at all times.

2. Maximize pasture during the summer months. Utilizing pasture forage is usually a third the cost of feeding hay. Therefore, horse owners are encouraged to establish new pastures and maintain existing pastures. Pasture maintenance includes mowing, fertilizing, resting to allow for re-growth, dragging, and controlling weeds. Consider using annual forages like teff and annual ryegrass to extend the grazing season into the spring and fall.

3. Purchase hay by weight. Bale density can make bale weight estimations difficult, especially for large round and square bales. Most truck stops and gravel pits have scales and will allow loads to be weighed for a fee. Owners can use bathroom or luggage scales to weigh small square bales. For example, a 35-pound square bale sold for $5 is more expensive ($286 per ton) than a 50-pound bale sold for $6 ($240 per ton). Weighing the bales can also help owners accurately calculate annual hay needs.

4. Buy a hay type that matches your horse’s needs. In general, less mature forages are more nutrient dense than more mature forages. Likewise, legumes (e.g. alfalfa) tend to be more nutrient dense than cool (e.g. orchardgrass) and warm-season (teff) grasses. A mature grass hay will likely meet the needs of a pasture companion. However, feeding a pasture companion an immature alfalfa hay may result in overspending and horse weight gain. Always buy good quality hay with no mold, dust or weeds. Buying hay with preservatives (e.g. propionic acid) is safe for horses and will help limit mold growth in hay.

5. Have your hay tested for quality. Testing your hay will aid in feeding precision, costs about $20 per sample, and results are usually available within a few days. Choose a lab that has an “equine package” and provides equine digestible energy (Equine DE). Use the test results to calculate how much hay each horse needs to avoid over or under feeding. For example, an average grass hay may contain 0.91 mega calories (Mcals) per pound compared to a mixed grass legume hay with an average of 1.06 Mcals per pound. If an adult horse requires 16 Mcals each day, an owner would feed 18 pounds of the grass hay compared to 15 pounds of the mixed hay to meet the horse’s energy requirements. If these hays are the same price per ton, the mixed hay would be a better buy since less of it is needed to meet the horse’s energy requirement. Of course other nutrients are important, but energy is the first nutrient used to balance a horse’s ration.

6. Do not over (or under) feed. Most horses should eat 1.5 – 2.5% of their bodyweight (BW) in feed (forages plus grains) daily. For example, a 1,000-pound horse should eat 15 – 25 pounds of feed daily, with a majority (≥75% for most horses) of that being forage. Most horse owners should target 2% BW; however, owners with easy keepers or overweight horses should target 1.5% BW, while owners with hard keepers should target 2.5%. Overfeeding can result in excessive horse weight gain, related health issues, and wasteful spending. Using these values can also help owners accurately calculate annual hay needs.

7. Always use a feeder or net to reduce hay waste. When feeding small square bales indoors, 7% hay waste occurred without a feeder vs. only 1% with a feeder. When feeding small square bales outdoors, 13% waste occurred without a feeder vs. 1 to 5% waste with a feeder. When feeding round bales outdoors, 57% waste occurred without a feeder compared to 5 to 33% waste with a feeders. Although feeders can be an investment, all feeders paid for themselves within one year. Not using a feeder can result in thousands of dollars of wasted hay (and money) annually.

8. Reduce hay waste with proper bale wrap and storage. Research found that when harvesting and storing round bales outdoors, dry matter (DM) losses were nearly 20% for bales wrapped with sisal twine, 11% for plastic twine, 7% for net wrap, and minimal losses with B-Wrap®. Hay stored indoors will always result in less DM loss compared to hay stored outdoors; however, not all owners have sufficient indoor storage. When round bales were stored outdoors without cover, DM loss was 7 to 49%, compared to only 2 to 6% when stored indoors. Outdoor storage tips include covering the bales with tarps, deterring wildlife from storage areas, storing bales on a well-drained surface or pallets, baling or buying a tightly packed bale, and using older bales first. Consider building additional indoor hay storage to reduce losses and to help ride out market swings and the seasonality of hay production. Properly stored hay will keep for multiple years.

9. Explore using alternative feedstuffs. These can be economical compared to hay during times of high hay prices. Hay cubes, hay pellets, chopped alfalfa, and complete feeds can be used as total replacements for hay; however, horses tend to eat these products quickly. Other fiber sources include rice bran and beet pulp. These feeds cannot fully replace hay, but can be used as partial hay replacements. Whenever hay alternatives are used, owners should work with an equine nutritionist (and their veterinarian if needed).

10. Consider reducing herd numbers by rehoming horses that no longer meet your goals. A 1,000-pound horse, eating 20 pounds of hay daily, will eat about 7,300 pounds or 3.6 tons of hay annually. If hay is selling for $300 per ton, that is a cost of $1,080 annually. 

Authors: Krishona Martinson, PhD, Hannah Lochner, BS, Jessica Prigge, BS, and Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota. Photo credit: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Hay Shortage Has Horse Owners Looking at Alternatives

Severe drought leaves hayfields and pastures brown and dry, and animal owners searching for replacement options.

Following the most extensive drought in 25 years, horse owners are facing hay shortages, increased prices and pastures in poor condition.1 We asked an equine nutrition expert about alternatives to feeding hay and what horse owners can do to help fill the gap left by these unusual and difficult conditions.

To get a complete picture of why hay is important to horses’ diets, Jolene Wright, Consumer Service Specialist, Nutrena, responded to some commonly asked questions.

Q. What does hay in a horse’s diet provide?

A. Hays and forages make up the majority of a horse’s diet and provide necessary complex carbohydrates they need, as well as protein and vitamins and minerals. Complex carbohydrates include hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin. These complex carbohydrates form in the cell wall in plants and provide fiber in the horse’s diet.

Q. How much hay does a horse need?

A. Horses require one to two percent of their body weight in forage daily, depending on their activity level and life stage. For a 1,000-pound horse, that would translate to 10 to 20 pounds of hay per day. Growing, breeding and working horses need additional supplementation to meet daily nutrient requirements.

Q. Is any hay okay, or are there things a horse owner should look for when choosing hay?

A. Horse owners should always seek out good quality hay. If it is coarse and stemmy, it’s a sign that the hay was baled when it was too mature and has high levels of lignin, which is not readily digested and has no nutritional value. This can increase the risk of gastric disturbances and distension of the digestive tract.

Q. Why has the drought impacted the hay crop?

A. When there is insufficient rain, the plant doesn’t get enough growth to cut at the proper stage for optimum nutrient levels. Cutting and baling hay at the proper nutrient stage varies from one type of forage plant to another and is also dependent on the climate and weather.

Q. What are some alternatives if I can’t find good hay that’s affordable in my area?

A. First, because hay provides long-stem forage which is ideal for the  horse’s digestive system, it is better to stretch the existing hay source instead of feeding all the hay first and then switching to a hay replacement product. There are many products available that can provide the fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals a horse needs every day. Other forage options include hay cubes, hay pellets, compressed hay, chopped hay in bags and complete feeds with high levels of fiber that can be fed as a sole ration.

Q. Is there anything I need to do when adding one of these replacement type feeds to my horse’s diet?

A. It’s best to consult with your veterinarian to ensure a seamless transition. Then, make the changes gradually over seven to 10 days, following recommended feeding rates for the horse’s individual weight and activity level.

Q. In warmer climates where the grass doesn’t go dormant, can that make up for a lesser amount of hay?

A. Winter pasture can provide a level of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. The quantity and quality of winter pasture will determine the amount of additional hay or hay replacement type product that a horse will need. Too many horses on a small amount of pasture will reduce the amount available to the horse and can deplete nutrient yield. Horse owners can get the suggested minimum number of acres per horse from the local agriculture extension agent for their specific area. For horses on winter pasture, it’s important for the horse owner to assess the body condition score of the horses and monitor their body condition through winter months. This will help determine if they are getting enough dry matter intake from winter pasture.

 

Jolene Wright has a master’s degree in Animal Science from West Texas A & M University, a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business and Equine Industries from West Texas A & M, and two associate degrees in Equestrian Science and horse Science Technology from Black Hawk College. Wright is a two-time American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Champion and was a member of the West Texas A & M and Black Hawk College AQHA World Championship Horse Judging Team, West Texas A & M National Reining Horse Association Championship Horse Judging Team and West Texas A & M National Champion Equestrian Team.

©2013 Merial Limited, Duluth, GA. All rights reserved. EQUILGN1232

1United States Department of Agriculture. U.S. Drought 2012: Farm and Food Impacts. Available at: http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/in-the-news/us-drought-2012-farm-and-food-impacts.aspx. Accessed November 20, 2012.

When Should I Feed a Complete Horse Feed?

A complete feed is a fortified grain/forage mix that is formulated with high quality fiber sources to raise the total percent fiber in the feed, so that reduced hay feeding can be done safely. Some fiber sources in complete feeds include alfalfa, beet pulp, and soy hulls. These are all good digestible fiber ingredients for horses.

Here are some of the many reasons why you might decide to feed a complete feed.  

  • You have a horse with poor teeth or no teeth that can no longer chew and swallow hay. This can be a young or old horse.
  • Good quality hay is hard to find, obtain, or pay for. This situation will most likely occur in:
    • Drought situations when plants aren’t growing or they are very mature when they get tall enough to cut. When a plant gets too mature it has high levels of lignin that can’t be digested by the horse leading to digestive upsets or increased risk of colic. Plants also lose nutrient content the more mature they get.
    • Extremely wet conditions because it may be more mature by the time a farmer gets good weather to cut it and flooding can also bring debris onto fields that can be harmful to your horse.
    • Situatinos where hay gets more expensive as fertilizer and fuel costs rise.
  • There is a lot of hay wasted from handling, transporting, ect. More hay is wasted when horses are fed round bales. When hay is expensive and there is a lot of waste, complete feeds may be more cost effective.
  • Hay is hard to handle and round bales/large square bales require a tractor for handling and other equipment such as a flatbed trailer. Equipment requires fuel, tires, maintenance, ect. The cost of handling hay should be brought into consideration when cost is a major factor in feeding.

Long stem forage is an important part of the horses diet and a good source of forage should comprise of at least 50% of the horses daily intake when possible. However, when any of the above conditions exist it may be necessary to feed a complete feed only or reduce the amount of hay being fed. A horse that can no longer chew hay will need to get all of his daily requirements from a complete feed that is easy to eat such as a senior complete feed with softer pellets that can also be fed as a wet mash. If hay shortage, hay cost, or drought is the reason you feed a complete feed you may want to continue feeding some hay in the diet for long stem forage if possible.

It is important to read and follow the feeding recommendations when buying a complete feed, and they should list the recommended feeding amount both with and without hay on the tag. As you decrease the amount of hay, you will need to increase the amount of complete feed. Here are two examples of complete feeds and how much to feed a 1,000 lb maintenance type horse with no hay and with hay/pasture.

  • A senior horse feed – generally a highly digestible and highly palatable product that can be fed as a complete feed, and is designed for older horses. 
    • A 1,000 lb maintenance type horse would receive 12 – 14 lbs of a senior feed, if no additional hay is fed.
    • The same horse, if it was being fed hay, would receive 5 – 7.5 lbs of the senior feed.
  • A traditional complete horse feed – known as “hay replacers” or “hay stretchers” – are a complete feed that combines high quality roughage and grains in a pelleted form. It can be fed as a complete feed or with forage. 
    • If no hay is fed, a maintenance type horse would receive 1.5 lbs per 100 lb body weight. A 1,000 lb horse is recommended to get 1,000/100 = 10 x 1.5 lbs = 15 lbs of a complete feed.
      When feeding along with hay or pasture, a typical recommended amount to feed a maintenance type horse 0.5 lb per 100 lb body weight or 5 lbs.

Whether you chose to feed a complete feed with hay or without, it is important to feed the recommended amount and make adjustments as needed depending on if your horse is an easy or hard keeper. It is also important to provide free choice salt and clean, fresh water at all times. Complete feeds should be split into two or more feedings. Horses should be switched slowly from one feed to another and also when eliminating hay from the diet. When reducing the amount of hay fed, it is recommended to reduce hay over 1-2 weeks.