Soaked, steamed, wrapped or unwrapped, hay or haylage – the options for feeding forage are seemingly endless and the best one for your horse depends upon a variety of factors, including respiratory health, weight, budget and routine.
Although it’s easy to perceive forage as just providing calories and keeping his digestive system ticking over, it’s actually an important vessel for essential vitamins and nutrients and, when fed properly, can even decrease your horse’s need for hard feed.
Your horse’s digestive system
Horses are designed to eat little and often, moving constantly in search of better grazing. Often, in the wild, high-quality forage would be uncommon, so the equine digestive system has evolved to function best when processing low-energy, relatively low-nutrient foods over a long period of time. This is why, when feeding domesticated horses, forage must make up the majority of their diet.
Feeding high-quality forage also ensures your horse’s diet has sufficient fibre content. This helps to regulate his bowel movements, reducing the risk of gas in the digestive tract and associated colic. Appropriate fibre levels can also help to reduce the risk of gastric ulcers.
DID YOU KNOW?
It can take up to three days for your horse to fully digest fibrous material, meaning he can extract more energy and nutrients from them than a human would be able to.
When choosing a forage source, you have two primary options – hay, which is available either wrapped or baled, and haylage. Both are made from cut grass, but the moisture content, nutrient value and processing method of each is different.
- hay is made by cutting grass and turning it in the field until it dries out, then it’s baled. Because of the low moisture content, hay is less likely to mould, but dust can be an issue for horses with respiratory issues.
- haylage is cut, then baled much sooner than hay. It’s wrapped in polythene, which retains moisture and causes a mild fermentation effect that inhibits the growth of fungal spores. Once haylage is exposed to the air it’s at risk of going mouldy, but there’s little risk of dust.
A lower dry matter percentage means that more forage will have to be fed to ensure a sufficient fibre and nutrient intake. For example, 3kg of hay will have more dry matter than 3kg of haylage, requiring you to feed a higher weight of haylage to give your horse the same amount of nutrients.
- Fresh grass 20% dry matter
- Haylage 55–65% dry matter
- Hay 85–90% dry matter
How to feed it
If hay is of good quality, it’s an easy forage option. The amount fed will depend on your horse’s weight and dietary needs. However, if it’s of lesser quality or he suffers from respiratory issues, you’ll need to soak or steam it before feeding. Soak it for 10 minutes in clean water and feed immediately to prevent mould spores from growing.
Feeding hay that’s been soaked for at least an hour is beneficial if your horse is on a restricted diet, struggles with laminitis or a metabolic disease, or has to have a reduced-sugar diet.
If your horse requires dust-free forage but needs the extra nutrients and energy that would be lost through soaking, haylage is an ideal solution. Once opened, it needs to be used quickly – depending on conditions, this can be anywhere from 2–7 days – so you may need to shop around for smaller bales if you’re a one-horse owner. Haylage also tends to be more palatable, so you may have to feed it in a smaller holed haynet to slow your horse down. It’s much richer than hay, so if your horse struggles with laminitis or is on a restricted diet, it may not be the right option for him.
If you decide to change your horse’s forage, don’t do it suddenly. Instead, make the transition over the course of a week or so. Rapid diet changes can increase the risk of colic.
Some farmers sell wrapped hay, which has a slightly higher moisture content than baled hay, but is drier than haylage. This is particularly useful if you need to store your forage outside, but because the moisture content isn’t high enough to encourage fermentation, sugar levels may be higher than other forage options and the capacity for dust reduction may not be as good as in haylage.
Because forage makes up such a significant part of your horse’s diet, it’s important to make sure you’re feeding quality rather than just quantity. Check your forage delivery when it arrives and look for the following indicators of quality…
- high leaf-to-stem ratio – more leaves indicate a less mature plant. Stalky hay tends to be less rich
- a golden colour
- a sweet smell
- faded yellow or brown stalks, or black marks
- a musty, metallic or acrid smell
- lots of stalk and seedheads
- thistles or weeds
Haylage or wrapped hay
- slightly moist
- a sweet smell
- leafy and golden with pliable stalks
- excessive moisture or heat – dampness is often an indicator of a hole in the wrapping
- large white or black patches
- punctures in the plastic wrapping
The nutritional value of hay depends largely on when it’s harvested. Young plants tend to be high in nutrients, while older plants tend to depreciate in quality.
Types of forage
So you’ve made a decision between hay and haylage, but have you thought about which type you’d
like your forage to be? The three most common options are…
- meadow hay, which is a grass hay with a high fibre content but lower protein and energy content than a legume hay. This makes it a great choice for good-doers, laminitics and horses in light work
- seed hay, which is made from immature plants and is packed with protein and energy, so it’s best for performance horses
- alfalfa hay, also known as lucerne hay, which is a nutrient-packed legume hay with a high protein content, suitable for poor-doers, youngstock and horses in hard work
Legumes are different from grasses in that they contain productive bacteria in their roots that convert nitrogen into dietary protein.
Nutritional analysis can be a great way to figure out whether your horse is getting sufficient nutrients from his forage and can help you decide whether he needs any changes or additions to his diet.
Having your forage analysed is a straightforward process and can be done by a feed provider or specialist lab. You’ll usually be required to send a few handfuls of the forage – each taken from the middle of a separate bale – for testing. Results will usually come back within a few days and testing will ordinarily cost around £20. The test results are indicative, rather than concrete, as they only tell you about the samples you’ve sent, but if your forage always comes from the same provider and doesn’t tend to vary in quality, it can be a helpful tool.
Even when stored properly, hay loses its nutritional value over time. Levels of vitamins A and E are particularly unstable and, after six months, tend to have declined entirely. Haylage maintains its nutrient levels until it’s opened.
How much to feed
To find out how much forage your horse needs, calculate his weight using a weighbridge or weightape. Depending on his energy requirements and whether he’s a good or poor-doer, he’ll need 1.5–3% of his bodyweight in dry matter per day. This includes forage, grazing and any hard feeds. For example, a 500kg horse in light to moderate work on a 2.5% feeding regime will eat 12.5kg of dry matter per day. If this is 80% forage and 20% hard feed, then he’ll eat 10kg of forage per day. Feeling baffled by all the numbers? A nutritionist can help you work out the ratios that will suit your horse best.