Horse Nutrition: Hay...do you know what nutrients your horse is getting?

Do you know what is in your hay? Do you know what is lacking in your hay?

As winter approaches and pasture sources are no longer available, the selection and purchase of hay or other roughage sources becomes an important decision for horse owners. Owners that have horses on confinement face the same decision all year. The quality and nutrient content of the hay or roughage source is critical because it is the foundation of the horse's diet and provides 50%- 100% of the total nutrient intake for many horses. There are several visual factors that can be used in evaluation of hay, but the best evaluation will include both visual and physical inspection and forage testing.

Key visual and physical inspection factors include fresh, clean smell and freedom from dust or mold. Hay that is moldy can create digestive disturbances such as colic. Mold spores and dustiness can contribute to respiratory problems such as heaves. This is more noticeable when horses are indoors, particularly if ventilation is not adequate. Visual inspection should also indicate that hay is free of weeds, dirt or other contamination.

Physical inspection should include looking for a high leaf to stem ratio and fine texture. A higher percentage of digestible nutrients is contained in the leaf portion of both grass hay and legume hay. As the plants mature, the indigestible fiber portion in the stem increases, reducing the energy and nutrient content per pound.

Color is also a useful indicator of how the hay was harvested. A uniform green color indicates the hay was not bleached from exposure to sun and rain. If hay has been stored where direct sunlight can hit it, the end or outside of bales may be bleached, but the interior should be leafy and green.

Forage testing is a valuable tool for determining the value of hay as well as providing information for selecting commercial feed and doing a complete diet evaluation. In forage testing, a representative sample is taken from several bales and sent to a laboratory to be analyzed for protein, fibre, calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc and energy (DE/Horse Digestible Energy). Samples should be taken with a hay probe, (a tool which has a tube with a cutting end for "drilling" into hay bales), then sent to a forage laboratory. Your local Purina horse feed consultant or the local Purina feed dealer can assist with directions and the available laboratory.

In any case, the selection of a high quality forage or roughage that is clean, free from dust and mold, free from contamination, and is of known nutrient value is crucial to the well-being of horses.

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Comment by Equine Nutrition @ Purina on November 12, 2009 at 8:43am
Both hays have the same purpose: providing needed fibre and dry matter to your horse. The main differences between grass hay (most common is timothy ) and legume hay (most common is alfalfa) are the fibre content and nutritional value. Grass hay is usually higher in fibre and legume hay is usually more nutritionally dense. Proteins, calcium, phosphorus and potassium are just some of the nutrients that are higher in legume hay, and so is digestible energy (calories). Because grass hay is higher in fibre, there is little chance of a horse lacking that important nutrient, which can sometimes be the case with legume.

Because the needs in proteins, calcium and phosphorus are particularly high for breeding, lactating mares and growing foals will benefit from hay that contains a certain amount of legume (25%-30%). Same can be said for high performance horses, their needs sometimes being as high as lactating mares. Maintenance and low exercise horses usually do fine on 100% grass hay, even though a little bit of legume won’t hurt.

With hay, the best advice is to find the best quality possible and making sure it’s free of dust and mold. Second best advice: have it analyzed by a lab, the only sure way to know it’s nutritional content.
Comment by Barbara F. on November 12, 2009 at 8:35am
Thanks for the great advice!
Comment by Laura on November 9, 2009 at 10:54pm
This may be a really obvious question, but what is the difference between grass hay and legume hay and is one better than the other? Thanks.

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