Buying Horse Hay (E2804)

Buying Horse Hay (E2804)

Whether used for work, sports, recreation or companionship, horses need high-quality forage. Not all hay has the same quality, even that grown or harvested at the same time. Quality hay has a high nutrient content and is free of dust, mold and other matter

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Whether used for work, sports, recreation or companionship, horses need high-quality forage. Not all hay has the same quality, even that grown or harvested at the same time. Quality hay has a high nutrient content and is free of dust, mold, and other foreign matter. Horses can be nutritionally deficient even when plenty of forage is available to them. Alternately, leisure horses can be overfed and encounter health problems due to diets too rich from very high-quality hay. Knowing the hay’s forage quality is the key. This publication describes the nutrient needs of horses, helps you determine how much and what quality hay you’ll need, and provides a detailed checklist to guide you when contacting hay sellers.

Horses are natural forage eaters. Though not ruminants, they do best with forage-based diets. A horse’s front teeth are ideally adapted for biting off grass. Its back molar teeth are better adapted for chewing feed such as pasture or hay than for grinding corn. Horses have a smaller digestive tract than most ruminants and cannot handle as much bulk at one time. Even so, lack of sufficient forage in a horses diet can lead to digestive orders.

The myths of feeding horses

There are more myths associated with feeding horses than with most other animals. The myths are often spread by horse owners who have little basic animal nutrition training. For some, “horse hay” means dry, dust-free, mature grass hay. This type of hay tends to be low in energy and protein, and may not meet the horse’s needs. Grass hay or grass mixed with mature legumes is often best for mature idle horses that are housed primarily indoors. However, young growing horses, pregnant or nursing broodmares, and athletic performance horses need more energy, protein, vitamins and minerals than this type of hay can provide. Some horse owners erroneously believe that feeding high-quality hay that contains legumes invariably leads to digestive upset. In fact, high-quality hay (e.g., young alfalfa) can reduce the need for additional supplement and will not cause digestive problems unless the quality or amount fed exceeds the animal’s needs.

A more responsible approach is to recognize that all horses need some hay and pasture. Feeding costs generally decline and animal health improves as hay is maximized and grain is minimized in the horse diet. This can be accomplished by feeding the highest quality forage appropriate for your horse. The best quality forage for your horse will depend on many factors including age (growing vs. mature), physiological stage (e.g., pregnant vs. not), and activity level. Refer to figure 1 for specific forage quality needs for different activity levels.

The horse’s digestive system

The horse’s digestive system is vastly different from other large domestic animals (ruminants). While horses are natural forage eaters, they do not have the large rumen for forage to flow into and be digested by microbes. Instead, consumed feed goes immediately to the stomach, which has relatively limited capacity. This is why horses are more susceptible to molds that would be digested in the rumens of cows or sheep. Feed passes more rapidly through a horse’s digestive system than it does through a ruminant’s, preventing them from using low-quality hay as effectively. This difference in digestive physiology also means that horses should be fed more frequently rather than given large amounts in a single feeding.

Once the horse takes a bite of the hay or pasture digestion begins as the forage is chewed and wetted with saliva. A horse will normally add 3 gallons of saliva to the feed daily. Chewing reduces the particle size of the forage and increases its surface area. Forage enters the stomach where soluble carbohydrates, proteins, fats and some minerals are enzymatically digested as would occur in our stomach. In about 15 minutes the forage goes into the small intestine where a high percentage of the protein, starch and fats from grain diets is digested to amino acids and absorbed. Only about one-third of the roughage component is digested in the small intestine. Most of the vitamins A, D, E, and K are absorbed in the small intestine along with calcium, phosphorous, and B vitamins. Forage remains in the small intestine for 30-90 minutes.

The cecum and large colon of the horse is enlarged compared to ruminant species. This section of the horse’s gut serves a function similar to the rumen and contains many species of bacteria, protozoa, and fungi to digest the fibrous components of feed (cellulose and hemicellulose). The microbes convert fiber and other feed components to volatile fatty acids which are absorbed by the horse as an energy source. These microbes also manufacture some protein, B vitamins, and vitamin K. The feed then proceeds through the small colon and rectum. Approximately 65 hours after it was consumed, the digested feed leaves the animal.

Nutrient needs of horses

The nutrients a horse needs depends on its physiological stage and activity level. Table 1 outlines the protein and energy requirements for various horse types. In general, a young growing horse has the highest requirement for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins per pound of body weight. This means that its diet needs to be the most concentrated in nutrients. In contrast, a non-pregnant, mature horse that is ridden less than daily (mature idle) has the lowest nutrient requirement. Other classes of horses fall in between these extremes. Horses that are worked hard daily or exposed to cold winter temperatures have slightly higher energy needs than idle horses.

So how do you decide what quality of forage to buy? You’ll need to calculate the percent crude protein required and you’ll need to consult figure 1 for the appropriate relative feed value. A mature, idle horse that weighs about 1100 pounds requires a minimum of 1.44 pounds of crude protein per day (from table 1). If the horse eats 2% of its body weight per day it’s consuming 22 pounds of hay. To determine the percent of crude protein needed, divide the crude protein requirement (1.44 lb/day) by the hay consumed (22 lb/day) and multiply by 100. In this example, hay that has at least 6.5% crude protein will provide all of the protein the horse needs; no additional protein supplements are needed. Based on this information, hay with a relative feed value (RFV) of 100-115 and crude protein (CP) of 6.5-15% will be adequate for this animal.

Selecting quality hay

Depending upon the use or the classification of the horse (maintenance, pregnant, lactating, etc.), hay can supply 50-100% of the needed nutrients. When buying horse hay, you should select the quality your horse needs at the lowest cost. To determine the quality needed, refer to figure 1 below.

Forage quality encompasses all characteristics that affect consumption, nutrient value, and resulting horse health and performance. Not surprisingly, there can be wide variations in hay quality. Hay can be analyzed to estimate how the horse will perform. But ultimately, it is the horse rather than the human that determines forage quality.

Quality differences and determination

Quality differences exist among grasses and legumes, plant species, growth stages, and growing environment. Legume hay and well-managed legume-grass hay are typically higher in protein, energy, and minerals than pure grass hay under similar management. However, with good management, most hay species or mixtures can be satisfactory for horses.

The most important factor affecting quality is the stage of maturity of the forage when it is harvested. As forage plants mature (from the vegetative stage to flower bud to bloom to seed formation), their nutritive value declines because they have fewer leaves and more stems (lower protein, higher fiber). For high-quality hay, alfalfa should be at the 10% bloom stage and cool-season grasses (orchardgrass, bromegrass, timothy, etc.) should be at the boot stage (seed head just ready to emerge from leaf whorl). Subsequent harvests can be taken at 30- to 35-day intervals.

Hay quality is determined by analysis of a sample at a forage testing laboratory. A hay analysis typically includes percent moisture, dry matter, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber, crude protein, and mineral content with many calculated values such as net energy, total digestible nutrients (TDN), and relative feed value (RFV).

Laboratories can analyze hay either by chemical or near infrared reflectance (NIRS) methods. Both are accurate. Allow 2 weeks for chemical analysis and 2-3 days for NIRS analysis. The list of National Forage Testing Association certified laboratories is available on the web at

Which cutting to buy?

Horse owners frequently ask what is the best cutting to buy. Hay from any cutting can be very high or very low in quality depending on maturity of forage when cut and how good the haymaking and storage conditions were. Hay buyers should not be overly concerned about which cutting, but should instead ask about the stage of maturity when the forage was baled and an analysis of hay quality.

Hay preservatives

Organic acid hay preservatives (for example, buffered propionic acid) properly applied at the time of baling inhibit mold growth that occurs in hay baled above 18-20% moisture and eliminate pockets of mold growth in hay. Their use can also decrease field drying times and reduce leaf loss by allowing for baling at up to 25% moisture. Research indicates that hay treated with most chemical preservatives is safe to feed to horses as long as no dust or mold is present.

Purchasing, transporting, and storing hay

How much hay do I need?

Horses will eat 1.5-2.5% of their body weight every day in dry matter. Grass or hay can meet 50-100% of that requirement. So if an 1100-pound horse eats 2% of his body weight each day in hay for 6 months, the horse will eat approximately 4000 pounds (2 tons) of hay. You can figure out how much hay your horse will eat using the calculations below.

Before placing an order, you’ll need to make several adjustments to the calculations. First, deduct any pasture consumed by the horse. In the upper Midwest, pasture can meet the full needs of most horses for 5-7 months of the year. Then factor in the amount lost to spoilage and feeding waste. The amounts lost vary depending on bale type and storage and feeding decisions and are discussed in the next section.

What kind of bale should I buy?

Traditionally, horse owners have preferred using small square bales. However, there are situations where owners should consider purchasing either large rectangular or round bales. If you will be remodeling your barn, it may be worth your time and money to consider accommodating large rectangular bales because these are becoming more available than small square bales and cost less per ton of feed. At a minimum, a 12-ft x 12-ft door is needed to back a truck in for easy unloading. For larger loads and trucks, consider a 16-foot-high door. For a comparison of the different bale types, refer to table 3.

No matter what type of bale you purchase, there will be differences in the weight of the bales. The type of hay, moisture content, and how densely the equipment packs or compresses it can cause substantial differences in the weight. Note that, especially with small square bales, you can get up to twice as much hay in some bales as in others.

The information in table 4 will help you compare the costs associated with different bale types and storage and feeding options. In this example, six 1100-pound horses will consume 51 round bales or 646 small square bales over a 220-day period. However, storage and feeding losses will significantly reduce the amount of hay actually available. Extra hay needs to be purchased to offset these losses. If round bales are stored outdoors unprotected on the ground and fed free choice, an additional 60% more hay must be purchased (25% storage loss + 35% feeding loss). By contrast, covering round bales with tarp, storing them off the ground, and feeding them in a feeder would cut the losses to 10%. The difference between these storage and feeding practices translates to a savings of $728 (26 bales x $28/bale); actual savings are higher if you include the cost of handling the extra bales.

How is a fair hay price determined?

The price for hay includes all of the costs for raising and harvesting the hay. It may or may not include storage and transportation costs. Farmers know their bottom line costs and set their price accordingly. Therefore, prices generally are not negotiable when purchasing on a bale-by-bale basis. If you are willing to purchase hay by the ton or semiload, there might be some room for negotiating a lower price depending on the farmer and their costs. Keep in mind that quality and bargains are rarely found together.

Prices within a region do not vary much. However, prices may change from year to year depending on the growing season, amount of hay produced in the region and the demand for hay. Generally, hay prices are lower during the growing season and rise in the winter and spring. Your county Extension agent can tell you what the current hay prices are in your region. Another source of information is available on the web at / hay.htm.

Consider buying one year’s supply of hay from one lot of hay. A “lot” refers to hay that comes from the same cutting and the same hay field. If all the hay comes from one lot, you should be able to minimize variations in hay quality. When hay comes from different lots, you need to gradually change to the new hay over 4-7 days to reduce feed refusal.

Buying hay “out of the field” during the summer is often more economical since it does not include storage charges. You would take immediate delivery of the hay and store it in your barn or hay sheds. You might consider purchasing your own wagon so that the hay can be placed directly on your wagon in the field, minimizing handling costs. Farmers will also appreciate this because their wagons are not tied up while you haul a load home and unload it.

If you cannot buy hay out of the field, consider contracting for all the hay you will need for the year during the growing season rather than waiting until winter when prices rise. The contract price would include hay storage at the farm until it is picked up or delivered.

Minimizing transportation costs

Transportation of hay is expensive due to labor, fuel, and equipment maintenance and depreciation costs. To get the best price per ton, you need to purchase a semi-truckload of hay—not just a few bales. Table 5 will give you an idea of how many bales will fit in a truckload. If a neighboring horse owner is interested, you may be able to purchase a truckload together and request that the delivery be separated at the two barns. Since delivery costs are similar for large and small loads, the total price per ton is significantly higher for small loads.

Minimizing handling costs

Unloading the truck may or may not be negotiable. Discuss this with the hay dealer before purchasing the hay. If you’re unloading the truck by hand, keep in mind that time is money. Plan to have enough people on hand to quickly unload the truck and get the truck back on the road. A rule of thumb is that one healthy, strong adult can unload 60-80 small square bales in one hour depending on the distance to where the bales will be stacked.

There are several things you can do to save significant amounts of time while unloading and storing hay:

• Use a forklift to unload hay stored on pallets from the truck.

• Consider purchasing your own wagon. Deliver it to your hay dealer before hay cutting. Once the hay is loaded, you can drive it to your shed and store it on the trailer until you are ready to use it or have time to store it in your barn.

• Live-floor wagons are smaller and can quickly, mechanically unload all the bales at once. If your barn has 12-ft x 12-ft doors, a live-floor trailer could be backed in to unload hay.

If building a new facility, think about creating storage space that’s readily accessible to vehicles. If the truck can easily be driven up close to the storage site, the seller will be more likely to want to sell more hay than if each bale has to be carried some distance by hand into the barn.

Buy by weight not volume

Hay can be priced on a per bale or per ton basis. Knowing the price per ton can help you comparatively shop between hay dealers. Then it won’t matter how many pounds per bale— only how many bales should be delivered for your settled price. Table 6 provides a quick look-up table to see how many bales of various weights make up a ton. For example, if you pay $3.00 per bale and the average weight of the bales is 50 pounds, a ton of hay costs $120 (price/bale x bales/ton). If you had paid $3.00 per bale for hay that averaged 40 pounds per bale, the cost per ton would be $150. You may or may not get the same number of flakes from each of these bales depending on how the hay was baled. For help converting prices between cost per ton and cost per bale, refer to the conversion equations below.

Weighing bales.A common bathroom scale is adequate for weighing small square bales. Check the weight of 5-10 bales from different parts of the lot to get an average weight of the bales from that lot. Large rectangular bales and round bales need to be weighed on a truck scale.

Buying hay on the Internet

Many web sites now list farmers that have hay for sale on a state-by-state basis. Keep in mind as you look at different sellers, that transportation costs raise the price of hay substantially the farther the farm is from your stable. To make a wise purchase—whether online or in person—the following checklist will help make the purchase process smoother. And prior to finalizing the sale, verify the delivered price of the hay and define in detail your right to refuse bales since you won’t be able to check the quality until it arrives.

Hay storage considerations

Whether you store hay indoors or out, the following considerations can help to make your storage site more accessible and minimize losses due to deterioration and rodent damage.

Select a dry location that’s convenient for delivery and feeding. During the winter, indoor storage makes feeding easier than outdoor storage.

Protect the bales from rain and snow. Although inside storage is preferable and more convenient, outdoor storage can be acceptable if bales are adequately protected. Cover outdoor bales with plastic or tarp and tie it down to keep it from blowing in the wind. Although round bales shed water better than square bales, they still suffer significant losses if they’re left uncovered in storage. Round bales may be stacked and covered or individual bales may be wrapped or covered with plastic. In the latter case, make sure that bale ends do not touch because this will be a place for water or snow to remain and be absorbed, causing mold and deterioration.

Store hay in a dry location off the ground. Regardless of whether hay is stored indoors or out, select an area where water does not accumulate. Place bales on a cement slab, gravel bed, layer of tires, wooden pallet, or other object that will break the soil contact and prevent moisture uptake. If bales are left in direct contact with the ground, as much as 12 inches of the lower layer of hay may be lost to mold and deterioration.

Try to keep the storage area relatively rodent free. Rodents can invade a haystack and cause significant losses as well as potential animal health problems.

Feeding hay

Respiratory problems from dusty hay are always a major concern to horse owners. It is important to recognize that all hay will have some dust as leaves and stems are broken. Thus, while very dusty and, especially, moldy hay should be avoided, moderate amounts of dust can be tolerated by having good feeding conditions.

The following suggestions can reduce animal health problem due to dust:

• Feed in a well-ventilated barn. Many horse barns are so poorly ventilated that, when horses stir up dust from their feed and bedding, it remains in the air rather than being moved out and exchanged for fresh air. The barn should have an exhaust fan or natural ventilation that exchanges total barn air volume once or twice per hour.

• Hay should be fed in a shallow manger. Making the horse reach down into a deep manger to get hay forces him to breath in an area where dust has been concentrated. Wire mangers can also be used to eliminate this problem.

• Put hay and bedding in the stall when the horse is out. This will allow the dust to dissipate before the horse returns.

• Wet down hay if it is dusty. Wetting the hay will keep dust with the hay and not allow it to become airborne.

• Feed animals outside if possible. Open-air feeding allows dust to dissipate quickly, so the horse inhales less of the dust from the hay. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of manure deposited indoors.


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