A timely reminder on evaluating hay quality (Animal Science Update)
(Note: This article was guest-written by Jennifer Weinert, a graduate student of mine. She is a Wisconsin native who grew up on a dairy farm, but gravitated more towards the horses than cows She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with an animal science degree, then went out to work for a reining trainer before going back to River Falls to manage their 70-plus head herd of university teaching horses. She started her Ph.D. in September 2016.)
Late fall is upon us, marking the end of productive pastures for the year.
When pasture grasses go dormant for the winter and horses graze down whatever residual forage is left on the field, it is time to start planning for winter rest for your pastures.
Winter grazing exclusion is a necessary part of maintaining optimal production levels in pastures over the long-term and avoiding costly renovations that can result from overgrazing.
After horses have grazed remaining forage down a 3- to 4-inch height, they should be removed from the pasture and confined to a sacrifice lot through the winter months until there is sufficient re-growth of pasture grasses in the spring. Winter rest of pastures also means that horses will be transitioning back to a hay-based diet.
As you begin to feed your horses from your hay stores, it is important to inspect and evaluate your hay to prevent any potential health issues that might arise from feeding a poor quality source of forage.
Below we review a few key tenants of assessing the quality of hay fed to horses.
• A visual appraisal is an important first step in assessing hay quality and is the least expensive method of hay evaluation.
In general, good quality hay is green in color, leafy rather than stemmy, soft in texture, and is not overly mature.
Good quality hay is does not contain foreign debris or weeds.
The weather this past summer created ideal conditions for the proliferation of weeds in many hay fields across New Jersey.
It is extremely important to make sure that hay offered to horses does not contain toxic weeds such as nightshades.
Foxtail is also problematic if consumed by horses, as the barbs from the seed heads can cause ulceration of horses’ mouths, which is both painful to the horse, and costly and time-consuming to treat.
• Good quality hay has a pleasant odor and is always free from dust and mold. The wet conditions that persisted across New Jersey for much of the 2018 growing season made it very difficult for hay producers to put up dry hay.
Even in cases where hay was baled at low moisture, high humidity has led to numerous reports of mold forming on the outside of hay bales already stacked in storage.
This can be both frustrating and costly for horse and farm owners.
It might even be tempting to try to feed this hay to your horses, especially if you already made a significant financial investment in purchasing the hay.
However, moldy hay should never be fed to horses under any circumstances.
Spores from molds growing on hay can cause persistent respiratory problems.
These molds also have the potential to produce mycotoxins, which can cause severe health problems if ingested by horses.
For more on implications of feeding moldy hay to horses, check out the comprehensive information provided through the University of Minnesota Extension by visiting https://extension.umn.edu/horse-nutrition/dont-feed-your-horse-moldy-hay.
• It is difficult to assess the nutritional quality of hay with visual appraisal alone.
While a visual appraisal can give us general indications about the quality of hay, the only way to actually determine the underlying nutrient content of hay is to send a sample out for nutrient analysis.
Services such as EquiAnalytical Laboraties can provide a detailed nutrient analysis report that can be used to determine if the nutrients in the hay are meeting a horse’s requirements or if supplemental concentrates are necessary.
For more information on how to collect and submit a forage sample, visit https://equi-analytical.com.
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Considering these points as you transition from pasture to hay over winter, or even as you are searching for hay to purchase as feed for your horses in the coming months, will help you ensure that your horses remain in good health.
Forage is the foundation of the equine diet and providing a high-quality source of hay that is free from weeds, dust and mold is an essential part of maintaining optimal nutritional and digestive health!
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