Winter is Coming/Here and how good is your hay? By Dr. Tena Boyd
With winter upon us, we need to examine our horse’s diet. As we all know, the bulk of a horse’s diet should come from forage sources such as pasture (now dwindling!), hay, hay substitute pellets or cubes, and chopped hays. Our horses need to consume 1 – 2% of their body-weight in hay daily or 12 – 24 lbs of hay/day for the average 1200 lb horse.
How do we assess hay quality? The first assessment is always visual. We are looking at color, indication of maturity (how “stemmy”?), “leafiness”, odor & condition, and the presence of foreign materials such as trash, plants/weeds, wire, etc. In the most general of terms, your first impression of color (the greener the more nutritious and palatable/tasty) and odor are the most important. If this hay makes you sneeze or your eyes water, it may not be the best for your horses (assuming you are not allergic to hay!) or you may need to soak or “rinse” dust off the hay before feeding.
Color and “leafiness” are indicators of what stage the plant was in when the plant was cut and cured and secondly, how well the hay was handled after cutting. If the outside is yellow and the inside nicely green, the hay may have been sun-bleached versus the hay that is yellow throughout from being over-mature when cut. If exposed to rain or heavy dews, the hay may be very brown in color and suffering mold growth and not safe to feed our horses.
For those who have horses that are “easy keepers” (overweight, insulin resistant, prone to founder, or have Cushings’), it may be most important to obtain a good nutrient analysis from a forage testing laboratory. These horses are very susceptible to health concerns from consuming diets too high in simple sugars or Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC). As well, if your horse is one of the over 100 Draft breeds or one of our stock horse breeds (Quarter Horse, Paint, Appaloosa) that suffer from EPSM or PSSM (Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy), this is important as well. With these horses, we need to know that our hay is less than 20% NSC in general and for the EPSM/PSSM horses, no more than 15% of their total calories can come from starch or sugar. Timothy hay is typically 15% NSC while Alfalfa hay is 20% NSC. Hay analysis can change in the same field depending on which cutting it is, how the hay was cut, amount of rainfall, and soil condition (pH, fertilized).
Forage testing is done by take samples from the center of a hay bale. It is best to sample several bales from a load of hay to be most accurate. These samples are then placed in a tight, clean, plastic bag and sent to the lab. Our county extension offices can provide information for this service. These offices can be found at www.offices.ext.vt.edu . Typically, these offices are open Monday – Friday from 8 – 5. The Fauquier office phone number is 540-341-7950 and Culpeper 540-727-3435.
Always remember to provide a good source of liquid water with these lower temperatures. The colder it gets the more hay our horses want to eat but they also need to increase their water consumption. Soaking some of their hay or finding the most desirable way each horse will consume water is worth the effort! Some horses like warm water added to their buckets, some like loose salt added to their feed, some like Gatorade in their water. Whatever accomplishes this goal and keeps them healthy!
[EPSM/PSSM are heritable muscle disorders that can cause weakness and muscle wasting, poor performance, abnormal hind limb gaits, and “shivers”. It can be seen as reluctance to move, muscle stiffness, sweating, shifting lameness, and tremors]