© Chris Harrell 2003
While the actual song title by Willie Nelson and Toby Keith is “ Beer for My Horses”, this article is going to attempt to cover some of the basics when considering a hay source and amount needed for the horses under our care.

First the all important disclaimer: “You use the ideas and thoughts presented here at your own risk.” I’m presenting this information to help in your decision making, but there is just so much variance by geographical location, that there is no way to be 100 % certain the outcome will be the same in all regions. So use the information, but also consider the circumstances of your individual situations.

Second, a little introduction on the Author. My name is Chris Harrell, and I’m a Farm Manager/Consultant in West Central Ohio. Currently, I manage an all “Grain” type farm, but have vast experience with feeding livestock in the past and making quality hay. I have a 13-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse mare, Missy, and enjoy Trail Riding, which is my way of staying mentally sane at times. If you read the forum pages of this site, you will see my posts under Chris(OH).

In the Gaited Horses Forum a question was recently posed of, Hay! How much can one horse eat? The author of this question had recently left boarding her horses, to now having her horses at home, and was realizing that she hadn’t really considered this before, as hay was part of the board agreement. Several good answers where provide for this question.

The general consensus is that a horse requires 1% of its body weight in forage as daily maintenance. This would mean that a 1000lb horse needs 10# of hay per day. Taking this out a little further, we have 365 days x 10# per day equals 3650# of hay. If your getting 50# bales, then the rough estimate is 73 bales for a years time period. This is probably a good rule of thumb to start with, but one does need to consider the type of hay and how much exercise/work the horse is doing. Temperature and the season can also effect the needs of your horse, so while this is a good starting point, don’t treat it as gospel. Several of the replies suggested figuring approximately 100 bales per horse per year. If we figure this on the 50# per bale, that puts us at a total of 5000# of hay. 

So why would we need that extra 1350#? There could be many reasons for this, and this amount may actually not be enough. One being that if your horse has a heavy work schedule, training, showing, or strenuous trail riding, it is going to require more feed to maintain body condition. The same can go for those that have broodmares, as these mares are eating for 2 from time of conception till weaning. That foal/colt can pull a lot out of these horses, especially during that lactation period, as mom will burn a lot of extra groceries making sure baby has a good milk supply. The other thing is if you live in the cooler climates where the winters can be a real bear. The intake of forage, hay, actually helps our horses stay warm. This forage being digested actually helps to produce heat from the inside out. Then there always seems to be that horse, that no matter how much you feed, is always hungry and seems to never gain weight. But, then there is also the opposite, or as someone so eloquently put it, an air fern, that seems to get fat by breathing, let alone looking at feed. So now we are even dealing with the metabolism of the individual animals. So while the 1% of body weight is a good starting point, you will need to learn about your specific horse needs to actually figure out what horse will require. Pasture availability and the other feed sources, grain/supplements, which you use in your horse’s diet, will also effect what you will actually need to feed. 

Since we’ve come up with a rough amount that will be required, how about the type and quality of the hay? One thing I think everybody is in agreement with here, and cross all area lines, is to make sure the hay you are getting/feeding is not moldy. Molds can cause disruptions in the digestive tract, to some molds being toxic in nature. While mentioning molds, this is also important in grains/feeds being fed, as well. Moldy hay fed to horses tends to cause upsets that can lead to colic, which can be fatal. So if you take one thing away from this article, be very aware of possible molds in your feed sources. These can appear from discoloration of the feed, to extreme dust, and is usually associated with a nasty odor in cases.

Molds in hay are usually caused by hay being baled that was not cured/dried properly and was baled to damp/green. These can be dusty types molds, to what is called caramellization.  The latter will appear as the hay turning brown and almost have a sweet odor to it. This can come from hay being baled to green, but stacked tight enough so that oxygen did not become present to allow for mold to really develop. In this case the hay has fermented, more than it has molded. The extreme heat of this process does cause some nutrients in the hay to be degraded. I have fed this type of hay to other livestock, actually, cows kind of like it, just like candy, but I’m not sure I’d advise feeding this hay to your horse. There is a very slim line between this being good for feed and containing mold. Usually, the tell tale sign is the lack of any dust, ie. mold spores.  On the other hand, your common variety molds, from hay baled to wet, either being to green or wet, ie rain, will appear as fuzzy gray growth on the hay. This is usually also associated with a dusty appearance, which is actually the mold spores floating into the air as you pull the hay apart. It also usually has a very off, sour, smell associated with it. 

Molds can also be caused by improper storage of the hay. You can purchase the sweetest smelling hay out of the field that was properly baled at the correct moisture, and have it go bad in storage. All hay will go thru a period of “sweat” after having been baled, as the process is compressing the forage into a tight package. As things equalize inside the bale, it is important that the bales be able to breathe so that moisture is not trapped between the bales. If you are buying hay out of the field, I would highly recommend that you stack your bales on edge, not so that you’re looking at the strings, but so your looking down at the “cut” side of the bale. This will allow heat and moisture to “wick” out of the bale, rather than being trapped. Also by placing cut side up, it will not be as easy for this moisture to enter the next bale, as the folded side of the hay, will be the down side of the next layer. The other thing to avoid is stacking your hay on concrete or dirt. Moisture will be drawn out of both, and generally your bottom layer will become moldy. If you have no choice, don’t clean up the loose hay that might be left from the previous year, but stack your new hay on top of it. The other thing would be to use pallets, which will allow for airflow and a place for the moisture to escape. Another little tidbit of information, if you are buying hay out of the field, and the bales weigh 65# going into the barn, chances are pretty good that they will only weigh 60# latter in the year when your feeding them and they have totally cured.

Guess this is a good time to talk about/discuss bale packaging. Probably what most people are familiar with is what are generally referred to as small squares. These bales are 14”x16” or 16”x18” square and anywhere from 3-4’ long. These are held in their shape buy 2 string or wires, and the density, or strokes put in the bale is what determines their weight, along with the type of forage. These can range in weight from roughly 35# to 100+. The actual numbers of flakes, or sections, in the bale are the strokes that the baler plunger made to produce the bale. The more strokes in a bale usually means for a better-shaped, denser bale.  These make for relatively easy bales to feed, and tho feeding by the flake is somewhat easy, you need to make sure what those flakes actually weigh.

The other popular bale size is what is referred to as round bales. These can vary from 500# to 1500#. Basically, rolling the hay up in rubber belts makes these bales. The hay is wrapped around itself in a chamber that is formed by the belts, and the tension on the belts compresses the hay. The outside of the bales can be wrapped with string or netting to help them keep their shape. Round bales became most popular in cattle operations as they reduced the required amount of labor to bale them, as well as feed them, but they do require equipment capable of being able to move them. While round bales tend to shed a certain amount of water/rain, there can still be a significant amount of spoilage when stored outside. Storing inside will help this problem, but it can take quite a bit of room to store very many of them compared to an equal weight amount of the small square bales. 

The new bale form that is gaining with farmers that raise hay, are the new large squares. These bales run 3’x3’ to 4’x4’ and can be 8’ long. A baler that is virtually a “Super Sized” version of the small square baler makes these. Bales can have 6 or more strings that hold the bale together. They actually consist of flakes of hay, in which each flake can contain more hay than a small square bale. Again, labor and being able to handle these bales mechanically have made them gain popularity. The other thing is that these bales readily lend themselves to easy indoor storage, without the loss of space, and ease of transportation. These can be moved with fork lifts or loaders and can weigh as much as a ton a piece.

Time to talk types of hay. Here is where things can get very interesting. Hay, is a very broad term that actually covers a very large forage group. This can be mixed hay, which usually is a combination of alfalfa and a grass, to straight grass, to pure alfalfa. Then you can break down the grasses into different types, such as brome, timothy, orchard, fescue, or bermuda. The grass varieties are probably somewhat limited by geographical area. 

Brome, timothy, and orchard are really considered cool season grasses, so will be more predominant in northern states. These grasses will produce fairly large volumes of growth during the early part of the year, with each cutting becoming smaller via volume. They have their most nutritional value when cut in the “boot” stage of growth. This is when you can just start to see the seed head coming out of the sheath. Once the seed head is fully emerged, the value of this hay starts to decline due to the plant is trying to produce seed, plus is putting stocks back into the root system to maintain itself. It also starts to become stemmy and woodier in nature, or in feeding terms, less palatable, brome and orchard are the easiest to establish and maintain stands from year to year due to the clump type root growth they have. Timothy can be hard to establish and can be easily choked out by other grasses, at least in my area. So this does tend to become one of those “here” things. These are all rather wide bladed grasses, and the stems become courser with age.

Fescue and Bermuda are warm season grasses, so tend to be found in warmer climates. The problem with fescue is that of the endophytes that are associated with it. These can cause reproductive problems in livestock, and is not a good choice in feeding breeding stock. While there are endophyte free varieties available, the wild grass so readily cross breeds with it that a free stand can become infected rather quickly. Fescue is a larger bladed grass.

Bermuda is a fine leafed grass that is very interesting. Since I have no experience with this grass, I asked Sandra Jackson for some help on this one:

Bermuda is a deep-rooted drought tolerant hay commonly used in the Southern United States.  It is a fine stemmed/fine leafed lower growing type grass.  It spreads by runners on the ground and grows very thick giving hay farmers lots of bales per acre.  There are many different varieties with new hybrids being developed to produce even more and better quality hay per acre.  Bermuda requires a lot of nitrogen fertilizer to thrive so if you find pure Bermuda hay you can almost be assured that it was fertilized.  The biggest drawback to feeding Bermuda hay is the risk of impaction colic…however, if it is introduced to the diet gradually as any new feeding product SHOULD be, impaction should not be a problem.  Bermuda can also be relatively high in protein (comparable to Alfalfa) depending on the fertilization rate, which cutting you buy and the length of time it has been stored.

Most other hays in this area are considered mixed grass or what we often refer to as “cow hay”.  Good mixed grass hay should NOT have noxious weeds (such as sage grass), but is merely cut from pastures seeded with a variety of grasses, which may include Bermuda, bahiagrass, clover, dallis and fescue.  Because of the endophyte problems associated with fescue, breeding mares should be taken off all pastures and hay containing fescue 60-90 days prior to breeding.  As with ALL properly handled and stored hay, Bermuda and/or mixed grass hays should be free of mold! 

Finally, the other popular part of hay mixes, or for pure hay is alfalfa. This is actually a legume type plant, which can pack a lot of nutrients in the leaf part of this plant. This is a very high source of protein, and can be extremely rich when made at the proper stage of growth. This is a very popular hay with the dairy industry, as it carries the energy required to produce milk in large volumes. With this said, I’ve always preferred to feed pure alfalfa or a high content mix to animals that had young by their side when livestock operations. This is where I thought I got the most value out of this hay. Personally, I consider this hay to be a little more rich than most of our horses really need, tho I fully realize there are those who would disagree. As with the other hays mentioned, this does depend on the stage of growth at which it is harvested. At full bloom, the plants tend to become stemmy and woody in nature, or less palatable. This is basically because the plant is putting it’s sources to seed and root production, and it is drawing these sources out of the leafs where they where manufactured and stored. Alfalfa cut at bud stage will contain the highest amount of nutrients. New varieties have been developed and released that are much more leafy and finer stemmed than those of past years are.

The other legume type hay that is raised would be clover. This is not as popular as it once was, as it can be very difficult to put up correctly, and is very timing critical to get quality hay from it. Clover hay can be dusty from just the hay itself, even tho it was made right. It’s just a characteristic of the plant itself. 

There are also a vast number of other crops that can actually be made into hay, but most of these are for a particular region, or happen for specific circumstances.

This table will give you somewhat of an idea of the nutrient value of some of the hays we are used to. Notice how time of cutting effects the values of these hays.

For those of you in the southern states where Bermuda is available, it appears that proper cut/made bermuda hay will have a protein content of 16%, crude fiber of 25%, and a total digestible nutrient (TDN) value of 66%. I learned something in writing this article, in that you have a really good hay source here if properly fed and handled.

Another question often asked, “Is what cutting should I feed or buy?” First cutting, in my area, tends to be for physically matured. This is partially because most of those raising hay here are also raising grain crops, so planting takes priority over haymaking. Second is the weather, as it takes sun and heat to cure hay if your baling, and this can be lacking in those early months while the hay is rapidly growing due to the more favorable weather conditions, ie. moisture. Mixed hay first cuttings also generally contain a higher percentage of grass in their make-up, as grasses are cool weather crops, so they grow larger, taller. This makes them a higher percentage of the hay just due to pure bulk.

Second cutting hay tends to be more nutrient dense just because it’s usually made in more timely fashion as the weather tends to be more cooperative. In mixed hay cases, you’ll have less grass in the hay, because the grass just doesn’t grow as fast as, say alfalfa. The second cutting of alfalfa also tends to be leafier with a finer stem, and the leaves are where the high nutrient content is. This tends to make for very rich hay, which is highly sought after by the dairy industry to feed cattle, as good hay can mean for feeding a smaller amount of expensive concentrates and feed grains. Also due to the fact that there is not as much produced per acre, as with first cutting, this tends to drive up the cost per bale/ton.

Third or fourth cuttings, we are talking just about pure candy. The leaf to stem ratio is higher yet, and even the best-mixed hays will tend to be almost pure alfalfa when reaching these cuttings. The grass that is present will also be more leaf than stem, and very fine. Again you have the same thing in that this makes excellent high nutrient value dairy hay, so your bidding for fewer bales again produced per acre.

So, unless you have a horse that really is working hard, or is in real strenuous training, most horses can probably get by eating a good quality first cutting hay. Balancing this with a good feed to get the other minerals needed for a balanced diet, and as always important, a good, fresh, cool water source available.

©Chris Harrell
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