The right hay for every horse
"Hay is the only way to feed every horse; if you have no hay, you can't do it," is an important principle in feeding horses. Since hay is so important, we must find the right hay for each of the various types of horse and their varying feeding needs.
Every sack of feed has a detailed list of contents and instructions for feeding, but hay does not provide these details. Laboratory investigations can provide a remedy for this, but each investigation can produce instructions only on the hay, which was investigated. Depending on the variety and relevance of the material available variations may appear to a greater or lesser extent in the trial. However we can still test and assess the hay with our senses.
The advantage of using our senses to test the hay is that it costs nothing and can be carried out anywhere and at any time. The only tools we need are our eyes, our hands and our nose. We are looking for colour and appearance, the feel and the smell. Hay alters during storage, and this is why it is important to check every single selection with all our senses alert. Even in apparently pristine batches of hay, there may be little individual nests of mould, which must not be fed to the horse. These may occur, for instance, from clumps of earth, which have been included when harvesting and have continued to store moisture.
The first step is to examine the hay closely. It should always be green in colour. This may vary from pale green, silvery or greyish green through to yellowy green and it gives an important hint as to the ingredients contained by the hay.
Silvery green or light green hay has been bleached by the sun and has a rather low protein and energy content, but on the other hand has high natural vitamin D content. However this reduces gradually during storage. This hay can be good fodder for horses with uncomplicated feeding needs.
Yellow or brown hay is leached out and often spoilt by a high degree of moisture; in this case the smell must be checked particularly carefully. The fodder value is comparable to that of straw, and is somewhat better for digestion. Black-coloured portions are not suitable.
A green colour indicates chlorophyll content, which helps the horse to digest the starches. In the early stages this plant pigment also indicates high vitamin E and ß carotene content. Depending on the storage conditions for the hay, however, these qualities can quickly become reduced. Intensely green hay is usually very rich in leaves and rather soft, with tasty, leaves, which are high in food-value as the dominant ingredient. It has been made from young grasses, which have rather scant raw fibre content, but a high protein content, which meets the needs of breeding horses and foals.
Pale green, silvery or greyish green hay is good horse hay from grasses rich in stems, with a relatively high proportion of raw fibres, which meets the horse's need to chew and also provides a good protein-energy ratio.
The stems of hay dried in a HSR system should be at least 10 cm in length, so that the horses can have a good chew. As well as leaves and stalks, the hay often contains flowers and grasses, especially if it is hay from the first cut. The various flowers make it easy to establish whether the hay is made from various grasses or only one species. You can also tell whether there is a variety of herbs in it. Biodiversity is an important marker for quality, since each plant is distinguished by different nutritional contents, in particular as regards what are known as the secondary substances. Hay rich in herbs contains more minerals and trace elements. Also, hay, which contains only a few flowers, usually has very little structure. Many horses eat it eagerly, for it tastes good and is easy to chew. For this reason this hay can be good for old or sick horses, and it can also be a good solution for horses with allergies, especially pollen allergies. The lower raw fibre content can be supplemented by giving good fodder straw or mixing the hay with grass seed straw or hay from the late first cut.
A horse feels full depending on the number of chewing motions it makes and not from the degree to which its stomach is full. Thus, the horse feels sufficiently full, only when it has chewed sufficiently. The raw fibres are located principally in the stalks, which we find in great number in horse hay. With certain grass species this can also be found in the second or subsequent cuts. You can also feel the raw fibre content. The hay should "have structure", should feel firm and rough when pressed together, hence the name, "roughage". Hay rich in leaves is soft, delicate and pliable. This means that it is rich in protein and low in raw fibres, but it can also in some circumstances also be low in calcium. Depending on the flowers, it is often like straw, very firm and bulky. During their growth grasses store all their nutrients for the purpose of forming seeds and so hay harvested very late is poor in nutrients, but easier to digestion, almost like straw. It is possible to buy such hay from grass seed production as "grass seed straw". This can be a good substitute for straw for horses, which tend to suffer from impaction. Hay harvested late can also be fed in large quantities to horses with very low fodder needs, since it meets their need to chew. In addition, this hay is a very good fodder choice in spring during grazing. When turned out to pasture horses take in the important raw fibres, quickly become satisfied and eat the fresh meadow grass as "dessert".
Important rules: Feed hay before turning out to pasture and concentrated feed after grazing!
As well as considering the structure, it is especially important to look at the moisture content: good hay must be completely dry! This is where HSR's know-how in hay drying comes in. By using a modern HSR hay drying system the hay can be dried energy-efficiently and very quickly.
Dry hay always feels rough and rustles when moved. Hay, which started off dry, can also become damp because of incorrect storage and then it feels more elastic. This can be detected principally on the outside of hay bales. In particular these are damper, if they are not stored in the hay or straw rick but on their side. Moisture encourages decay caused by bacteria and fungi and must therefore be avoided at all costs. Hay must be stored in dark, dry conditions! Horses clearly prefer to eat dry hay and avoid damp hay.
Rotting hay can be recognised principally by the smell. Good hay should smell fresh and aromatic. A mildewy, dank or musty smell indicates rot. Very dry hay often has no smell and does not develop a smell until it is in contact with air humidity. Bacteria and fungi are naturally present on all types of grass to a greater or lesser extent and are gathered up along with the hay harvest. Certain species of grass, in particular the widespread meadow grasses, are more densely colonised by fungi than others. Fungal attack manufactures toxins, which are poisonous to horses. Mould dust, which damages the lungs, can also develop. In very dense stands of grass rot pathogens have ideal conditions for spreading, when stems of the older grasses lie flat because of loss of structure and form thick mats, which the sun' rays seldom penetrate. Thus, rapid drying after mowing is very important, in order to stop the further propagation of the pathogens present and if possible, even to kill off the pathogens. The sun’s UV rays help in this process in field drying. A maximum of 14% of residual moisture deprives the bacteria and fungi of their conditions for existence. If this can be achieved within a few days and preserved during storage, the hay is protected from rot, smells aromatic and has no mould dust.