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/.