By: Larissa Cox
We all know that it is very important to provide our horses with the best quality forage available as this is their primary source of nutrition. Forage quality refers to a forage’s potential to meet the nutritional needs of a particular animal. For example, a hay that meets all the nutritional needs of a lactating dairy cow, would not meet the nutritional needs of a pleasure horse. Make sure to keep the needs of your horse in mind when evaluating forage quality.
The stage of maturity at harvest plays a major role in determining the quality of a hay. Early in the growing season, forage plants move into their vegetative stage, which is characterized by leafy growth containing high concentrations of starches, sugars, proteins and minerals. As the growing season progresses, plants enter the reproductive stages which is characterized by elongated stems and developing seed heads. The dry matter in these plants has a lower proportion of nutrients and higher plant fiber. The greater the fiber content of hay, the less digestible it is. Ideally, the best hays would contain a high proportion of leaves and few deed heads or stems.
The quality of hay also depends on how the hay was harvested, handled and stored. To preserve the nutrient value, hay should cure in dry, sunny weather as quickly as possible. Once it is at the proper moisture content (15-18%), it should be taken from the field and stored properly. Hay not harvested and stored under ideal conditions may lose nutrients or get moldy.
Weeds in the hay have a very poor feed value while some are even toxic to horses. Remember that high quality hay comes from healthy forage stands with few or no weeds. Foreign objects such as trash, rocks may pose a threat to horse health, so high quality hay must be free of any foreign material.
Forage species also play a very important role in hay quality. For example, Timothy grass matures later in the growing season allowing it to be harvested at the right stage of maturity. Second or third hay cuttings have little stem or seed head development making these of a higher quality hay product.
When buying your hay, you can get a general sense of quality just by looking at it. A high quality hay will have a high proportion of leaves in the bale, with few or no coarse stems or seed heads. Higher quality hay will contain little or no dust or mold. Bright green color and a sweet, fresh odor is a good characteristic of higher hay quality. If the hay you are looking at is brown or has a bleached appearance, this generally denotes a lower quality. And remember, that they hay you buy should be free of foreign objects such as trash, sticks tree leaves, and weeds). Also lookout for any poisonous plant species in the bale.
While a visual appraisal will help you with the identification of poorer quality hay, it won’t help you at all in assessing its feed value. This needs to be done at a lab. When purchasing hay, most reputable dealers will have feed analyses available or will be willing to submit a sample for hay analysis. Remember, however, that when requesting hay analysis, you request for equine testing. A typical equine hay analysis would include moisture, dry matter, digestible energy, crude protein, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber, Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates (ESC), Water Soluble Carbohydrates (WSC), starch, non fiber carbohydrates (NFC), calcium and phosphorus.
Proper sampling is necessary to provide an accurate representation of your hay. When in doubt, contact your equine nutritionist for help.