Horse owners and hay producers don't always agree on how to identify safe good-quality horse hay. Here is a list of seven key characteristics buyers should consider when evaluating horse hay.
- Mold/Moisture -- Buy hay baled between 15-17% moisture and it should be free of mold. With small square bales you can sometimes get away with baling at 18-20% moisture without spoilage. More-dense big square bales should be put up below 16% moisture for safe storage. Hay baled above 25% moisture poses the threat of severe heat damage or spoilage mold growth and/or hay fires. Hay put up at 20-25% moisture and properly treated with organic acid preservatives can be fed safely to horses. Horses however may require a short adaptation period to readily consume this hay.
- Maturity -- Don't equate seed heads with "good" hay. Seed heads just indicate that the plants are mature with thick stems, more fiber, less protein, and decreasing levels of digestible energy. Horses that aren't working hard or lactating may be able to get by with a "stemmier" hay containing more seed heads, but hay with more leaves and softer smaller stems are better quality.
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Consider grass hays that have been harvested when seed heads have just begun to form. They have good fiber digestibility and more available energy than more mature hay. Legume hay harvested at about the 10% flower stage is usually a leafy hay with extra protein that horses will convert into ammonia. Mature legumes make hay that does not exceed a horse's protein level in most cases but also tends to be very coarse. Softer hay will be consumed more readily. If it feels rough to you it will obviously feel rough to the horse.
- Cut Or Crop -- Don't base nutritional value on when hay is cut agronomists recommend. Maturity, followed by hay curing and storage, determine what nutrients a hay holds. Because plants that grow under cooler temperatures build more digestible fiber, first-crop hay may have more digestible fiber than later cuttings -- but it is not a guarantee. First cutting can often produce more coarse hay than later cuttings, but good and bad horse hay can be produced in any cutting.
- Grass Hay vs. Alfalfa -- Know how much digestible fiber and energy your horses will need -- then find hay that will provide it. Alfalfa and clover generally have higher protein content than grasses. So alfalfa hay is a good protein source for young developing horses, but it may have more protein than what other horses need. Fiber from grasses is more digestible than from alfalfa and other legumes at the same maturity stage.
- Smell -- Not all sweet-smelling hay is good. Sometimes hay smells sweet because sugars within it caramelize which indicates mold presence. Horse owners should look closely at the hay to make sure they aren't dealing with mold issues.
- Color -- A green color is only a fair indicator of hay quality. Bleached color indicates exposure to sunlight or rain and can mean vitamin A has oxidized, but other essential nutrients are usually present in bleached hay. When only bleached hay is available, horse owners should have it tested.
- Storage Considerations/Spoilage -- Once you've bought it, keep stored hay away from water and wild animals which can contaminate it. Studies have shown that up to 50% of a hay bale can be ruined when stored where moisture can be wicked up into it from the ground. Round bales should be dense and well-formed with twine or net wrap and less than 18% moisture to minimize storage loss potential.