Selecting Hay for Horses: Which Type is Best?
Most of us know that forage should be the cornerstone of any horse’s diet, but when it comes to hay, which type is best for your horse? Knowing some basic information about the different varieties of horse hay can help. And while many of us may be limited to the hay that is available in our particular area, some of us have a few choices.
The most important factor in choosing any horse hay is that it be clean–free of mold and dust. Having no or relatively few weeds is a good thing, too. The maturity of the hay when it’s harvested is important as well. The earlier a hay is harvested (within the life cycle of the grass), the more nutrients will be available to the horse. Late-harvested hays are usually coarse and thick and are lower in nutrients as well as palatability than hays harvested in early to mid-bloom.
Legume vs. Grass Hays
There are two general types of hay: legume and grass–but sometimes hay can be a mixture of both. Legume hays (such as alfalfa) are higher in protein, calcium, Vitamin A, and digestible energy than grass hays. While growing horses, pregnant/ lactating mares, and equine athletes may need a higher energy source such as that provided by legume hays, many horses do not.
While lower in protein and energy, grass hays tend to be higher in fiber than legume hays and can sufficiently meet the majority of nutrient needs of most horses. Grass hays can be further divided into cool and warm season grasses (depending on where they thrive), with cool season grasses typically being a little higher in sugar and energy content (and palatability) than warm season grasses.
There are also cereal grain grass hays, such as oat, barley, rye, and wheat–these hays are usually higher in starch and nitrates and should only be fed to horses with caution or in limited amounts.
Here are some common types of horse hay along with some basic information about each:
- Alfalfa: Alfalfa is high in protein and calcium but low in sugar. Most horses love it, but not all can tolerate it well. Alfalfa generally contains about 15-20% crude protein, making it one of the highest protein hays. It is generally recommended that alfalfa not be fed as a horse’s sole forage ration though (see this post to learn more.)
- Clover: This is a highly palatable hay with a protein content usually running between 13-16%. There are several different types of clover used for hay, but red clover is the most popular. However, clover can be affected by a mold that causes horses to salivate excessively–giving horses the “slobbers”. A few other complications have been associated with clover–see this article to read more.
Warm Season Grass Hays:
- Coastal Bermudagrass: Bermudagrass is very popular in the southern United States, including where I live in Oklahoma. The protein content of bermuda hay ranges from about 6-11% and it is highly digestible. However late-harvested (overly mature) bermudagrass hay has been associated with ileal impaction colic, so use caution when purchasing or feeding bermudagrass hay.
- Bromegrass: Bromegrass is best when harvested at mid-bloom stage. It’s highly palatable and has a nutrient content similar to bermudagrass.
- Prairiegrass: This is actually a mixture of native grasses grown in the Midwestern U.S. It’s protein content is typically between 6-8%. Prairie hay is known to be fairly low in nutrients, however the quality can vary depending on the grass species in the hay.
Cool Season Grass Hays
- Orchardgrass: Ranging from 7-11% crude protein, orchardgrass is typically grown in the northwestern and northeastern U.S. This is a fairly good hay for horses if cut in the early bloom stages.
- Timothy: This is a very popular grass hay which is highly digestible. It is known to be low in protein (7-11%), but high in fiber. Horses tend to like the taste of Timothy hay as well.
- Tall Fescue: This type of hay is commonly grown in the Midwestern and southeastern U.S.. Protein content is on the lower end of the scale at 5-9%. Many horses do not find tall fescue hay palatable, however. This type of hay is also linked with an endophytic fungus which commonly grows within the grass and can cause prolonged gestation, difficult birth, thickened placenta, and lack of milk production in mares. The fungus may also cause decreased digital circulation and lameness in horses (see this article I wrote for The Horse.)
Whichever type of hay you go with, getting it tested is the best way to know if it will meet your horse’s nutritional requirements. Many people also choose to mix hay types (such as legume and grass) to meet nutrient needs as well. To learn more about hay testing and how to do it, see this post.