Hay - How to Choose Quality

Every year you will have to make or buy hay -- the basic preserved forage for your horse.

A horse is a herbivore and lives primarily on plants. The lower gut, cecum and colon, represents the horse’s main digestive capacity.
These parts of the gut contain a huge quantity of microbial.
With their help fibrous feeds can be digested and made available for absorption.

Horses which have got forage as a main part of the ration will suffer less from digestive problems, colics and vices, like cribbing or wood chewing.

For a proper functionality of their digestive system, horses require at least 1% of their body weight per day in long-stem dry matter.
It doesn’t matter in which form this will be fed, only the particle size should be above 1 inch/ 2.5 cm. If it is smaller, digestive problems and vices will appear.

People who harvest forage year by year know very well, how labour intensive and weather dependent this business is.
Here on the British Isles it can be a real struggle to get it crued in the first go without repeated, wet episodes.

And not to forget, it is quite an investment: tractor, different special machines and enough room for storage.
A critical point is after pressing it into bales: if bales are collected with a humidity of 20% and over and stored in a barn, the danger of spontaneous combustion is huge.

If you prefer to buy forage, you need to find good quality forage locally to a reasonable price.
Usually there are good suppliers around nowadays.
It has become a niche-market for farmers; some even specialize in forage harvesting.
They have got the fields and meadows, the right machinery and the know-how.

Hay Stack
Photo by Paul Nasca

How should good quality hay look – or smell – like?

Forage Quality

Horse health and performance depends on nutritive value and consumption of forage. Forage quality is determined by a range of factors:

  • Color

  • Grass species and Variety

  • Leafiness

  • Maturity at time of harvest

  • Harvest and storage conditions

  • Presence of weeds, pests and foreign bodies


Green hay contains more vitamin A precursor, beta-carotin. If it is yellowish – light brown, it was exposed to sunlight and rain after harvest. But color is not a reliable quality factor, as alfalfa can be brown and weeds bright green.

Species and Variety

Grass forage includes brome grass, orchard grass, timothy and redtop.
Legumes are alfalfa, red clover and sometimes birds foot trefoil. They contain more protein and calcium than grasses.
Energy levels are approximately the same.


Leaves contain highly digestible sugars, starches and more protein than stems. Forage containing more leaves are better in quality.
At a moisture level of around 20%, fewer leaves are shattered and fall off than in dryer forage.
If it is wetter than 20%, leaves become moldy.


The amount of seed heads of grasses and the amount of flowers of legumes at the time of harvest determines the degree of plant maturity.
Forage before bloom will not show seed heads or flowers. If maturing further on, crude protein decreases, lignin, cellulose and hemi cellulose increase.
Cellulose can be digested partially with the help of gut microbial, but lignin not. Forage digestibility decreases by 3-4%, if lignin increases by 1%.


After harvest, grass is still "breathing".
This respiration process needs sugars and starches. Rainfall causes loss of important nutrients.
The loss of leaves due to physical factors during the harvesting process decreases digestible dry matter even further.
This loss can be kept minimal with modern harvest methods that shorten curing time, e.g. physical and chemical preservative methods.
Acetic acid and proprionic acid are such preservatives. Alfalfa hay treated with preservatives can be baled at a humidity level of 35%.
Horses can digest such treated hay without problems.
Hay should not be baled when humidity is greater than 20% and if a preservative is not used.
Bales will heat up inside and hay looses quality soon: mold and dust occur or as the worst scenario, spontaneous combustion can be caused.

Presence of Weeds, Pests or Foreign Bodies

Forage quality can be significantly reduced when toxic weeds are present in a certain quantity.
Ragwort is the cause of severe liver damage in horses and other farm animals. Some weeds can be digested without problems by horses.

Insects can cause health problems: Blister beetles contain a toxin called cantharidin.
This toxin irritates severely the mucous membranes of the digestive and urinary tract. The beetle occurs in very dry conditions and after grasshopper infestations.
The mower-conditioner crushes those beetles and retains them in the windrow, so that they are in the end still present in forage.

Examine forage carefully, especially if you know it is from a dry area.
Check also for the presence of foreign bodies, like metal parts (nails, wire,…) or dead small furries,cats,…
Be sure that it does not smell musty, because this shows that mold could build up. Dust and mold can cause respiratory problems in horses.

Forage Storage

Forage can be provided and stored in different forms:

Round bales

Round bales can save labour and can be used where a lot of horses are kept together, e.g. an equestrian center.
They can weigh up to 600 kg, so for transporting them, storing and handling machinery is required.
Important is to keep them dry and well aired, when stored. This can be indoor or covered with plastic on palettes or on gravel.
When fed to horses, a feeder controls unnecessary waste.

Square bales

Small, conventional bales are most commonly used.
They weigh around 30-35 kg and can easily be handled and stored. Bales should be stored under a cover to keep heat generation and weather damage on a minimum.

Chopped hay

Forage chopped to a length of 2.5 cm is used in a total mixed ration by adding the grain mixture directly to the chopped forage.
You can easily vary the forage/grain ratio without changing the feedstuffs when the horse's requirements change.
This form of forage may become dusty. To avoid this vegetable oil or molasses can be mixed into it.

Hay cubes

These are 5 x 5 cm cubes made from roughly chopped hay. They can be produced out of different hay types.
A big advantage is, that cubes can be put into bags and the ingredients can be determined and guaranteed.
If cubes are made of forage particles measuring less than 7.5 cm, wood chewing can be avoided.
Horses need to be weaned gradually to this kind of forage, as they might suffer from obstruction of the esophagus, they "choke".


Pellets are made from smaller particles, than cubes.
Hay with or without concentrated horsefeed made to pellets can therefor not help to keep digestive functions properly running;
horses fed on such a diet start soon showing signs of behavioral vices, like chewing foreign bodies out of metal or wood.
The horse feels hungry due to feed passing through a lot quicker.
To avoid this, rough forage (e.g. unchopped hay or quality straw)should be added to the diet, about 1% of the horse's bodyweight.


Haylage and silage is made out of forage with a high water content (50-70%).
The base of preservation of this kind of forage is a low pH achieved by anaerob (strictly no air) fermentation.
Well fermented, fresh silage and haylage smells delicious. Unpacked silage has to be fed quickly, as it will start to go off fast.
It should not contain any foreign bodies, soil, dead material, because ingestion of such forage can cause a lot of health problems in horses.

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