For equine owners who raise their horses in areas with cold winters, hay is a necessity. Lush pastures die back as autumn progresses, so horses depend on hay to meet their roughage needs. Here are three ways to tell if the hay you’re buying is safe and nutritious for your equine.
Look Closely at the Hay
Ask the hay supplier to open a bale for you, so you can see what the forage looks like on the inside of the bale. This is easier to do when you’re purchasing square bales, but large round bales must also be examined carefully.
Hay inside the bales should be bright green in color. Even if the outside of the bale is faded to yellow or beige, the internal hay can be perfectly safe to feed your horse as long as it’s still green. If the internal hay is bleached out, brown, black, or yellow inside the bales, the hay has most likely lost its nutritional value and may be moldy or rotted.
Check the hay for signs that the hay was cut when the grass or legumes were immature. Signs of hay that’s cut too late in the season include:
- Excessive seed heads
- Large blooms
- Thick stems
- Large stem-to-leaf ratioLook for signs of trash, weeds, dust, and debris caught in the bale. Never buy hay that’s studded with dirt, weeds, or trash bits, since these materials can make your horse sick and indicate an unkempt hay field. Also, examine any alfalfa bales for signs of blister-beetle infestations, which can cause horses to become sick or even die.
Smell the Hay
Fresh, palatable grass hay smells clean and slightly grassy. Fresh alfalfa and legume hays smell slightly nutty, sweet, and rich. Never purchase or feed your horse hay with the following smells, even if the hay color is good:
- Exceedingly sweet
- RancidIf the hay smells off to you, it smells off to your horse. Since a horse relies on hay forage for 50 to 90 percent of its diet, your horse will start losing weight if the animal refuses to eat bad-smelling hay. Certain hay molds also produce toxins which can be hazardous to your horse.
Feel the Hay
Grab a handful of hay and squeeze. Fresh hay that’s cut before maturity feels soft and compresses easily when you firmly squeeze it. Hay that’s cut too late in its growth period feels hard and less pliable. If the hay feels more like a pile of sticks than a pile of dried grass in your hand, the hay isn’t as nutritious or palatable to your horse as properly cut hay.
Safely cured hay feels dry but not dusty. The hay you feed your horse should never feel wet to the touch, slimy, or full of briars. Lift a bale to check its weight. Bales that seem too heavy for their size and/or warm to the touch may be fermenting inside. The bales will soon rot and could even cause a barn fire if the fermenting bales overheat and spontaneously combust.
Purchase hay from reputable hay farmers whenever possible. Ask other horse owners and your feed-store staff about hay suppliers they recommend. No matter where you source your hay, perform the above tests on the bales before purchase to ensure that your horse has adequate and safe forage to last throughout the cold months.