Next time you are in the barn take a few minutes to look at your hay. Are you familiar with the quality of it or guessing it? What about the nutrient content? "Forage Is First" rule applies to all horses - their digestive systems work the best when ample forage is supplied. But not all forages are created equal. Was it a good year or a stressful year for hay production? So, you ask, what difference would that make in my horse hay? Well, it could make a big difference for the horse and your pocket book, and here is why...
The only way of really knowing what is in your hay or how good your hay is, is by having it analyzed by an accredited laboratory. It is relatively inexpensive (around $50 or less). This analysis is important because it can tell you the amount of protein, digestible energy (DE, calories), sugars and starches, fibre content, moisture, minerals and much more. Given the fact that a horse will consume at anywhere between 2/3 to a complete diet in hay, it would make sense that you are getting the right hay for your horse and the most "bang for your buck".
Let's take protein for example. If you have a young horse, lactating mare or performance horse, protein will be an important factor. If the hay does not provide adequate amounts then supplementation will be required: the lower the protein the higher the amount of concentrate/grain needed and your cost of feeding increases. Grasses that have been stressed throughout a dry spell will usually be higher in sugar. If your horse is overweight or dealing with Insulin Resistance you would definitely want to know how much sugar and starch are in your hay. Further, these also affect the Digestible Energy which in turn affects how much you would feed your horse based on what this calorie value is. Some horses require lower DE values while others can tolerate higher values.
NDF is another parameter to keep your eyes on - it is a measure of the primary components of a plant's cell wall. The higher the NDF is, the tougher the hay, the more chewing is required and intake is decreased. In other words hay is wasted as well as your money! As a rule of thumb, early maturity hay (June cutting) is most nutritious and from there it goes downhill, unless you are getting multiple cuts. Even still, early maturity hay is good for some horses (growing) while a later maturity hay is good for others (overweight). In all cases, hay is not a complete food so therefore an appropriate vitamin/mineral supplement should be included in a horse's diet.
Getting a hay analysis provides a lot of great information about your hay that would not be otherwise known by physical examination. It is an important component in the evaluation of hay and an important tool used to formulate the right diet for your horse. Still confused? The Feed My Horse Software can easily interpret your hay analysis and show you in graph form, what nutrients your hay has in excess or is deficient in (www.feedmyhorse.ca).
Until next time,
Equine Nutrition Consultant
Superior Equine Health and Nutrition Inc.
All articles posted are for general information purposes only and are not intended to replace the advice of a veterinarian, or provide a diagnosis for your horse.