The importance of forage
First, it is important to know that the horse is a non-ruminant herbivorous animal. Horses evolved as grazing animals that survive by eating large amounts of fibrous plants. They draw energy and nutrients from these plants through extensive fermentation of fibers in the posterior intestine.
Forage is the most important aspect of horse feeding. The forage can be hay, pasture grass or even in some cases straw. Although there is an abundance of different types and kinds of concentrates available today, horses should still get most of their nutritional requirements through forage. Hay provides important nutrients, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
How to choose the right hay to feed your horse?
It is important to choose a hay according to the needs of our horse. Not all hay have the same nutritional profile. It is important to consider several aspects of hay and not just the timing of cutting.
First, hay should have a fresh smell and contain no mould. Avoid buying very heavy bales of hay. This may indicate that the hay was not properly dried before being baled and is humid. Another sign that hay has been improperly dried is the presence of dust which is also to be avoided.
Composition of the hay
Grass hay such as timothy, meadow brome, dactyl, is generally less caloric. The main value of this hay is that it can add volume to your horse’s diet without being too dense energetically. In general, this type of hay has a protein level between 6 and 18%.
This type of hay is a good choice for:
- Easy keepers, horses that tend to be overweight easily or ponies – this type of hay is lower in calories
- Stalled horses or horses on stall rest – because grass hay is less energy dense, it can be given in larger volumes and put in hay nets to prolong consumption
- Horses with fragile intestinal health – high fibre content promotes digestive health
Legume hay such as alfalfa and clover are part of the pea family. These hay are high in energy, protein and calcium and can be used to increase the nutritional value of a grass hay diet. Because it is not recommended to feed a horse only grass hay as it is very high in protein and low in fiber. In general, this type of hay has a protein level between 14 and 26%.
These hay are less rich in fiber and do not support fermentation in the intestine as well as grass hay. This type of hay is also more appetizing and horses tend to consume it more quickly.
This type of hay is a good choice for:
- Horses in intense training
- Lactating mares, foals and young horses – these physiological stages require a higher level of protein and calcium
How do I know which plants are present in the hay?
Obviously the best way to find out what the composition of that hay is is to ask the seller. But you can look at a few details to see if a hay contains legumes or if it’s grass-only hay.
- Looking at the analysis of the hay, if the crude protein level is around 10%, it indicates that it’s grass hay, because with legumes it’s close to 20%.
In Canada, producers often use a mixture of grasses and legumes. This hay makes it possible to give your horse legume hay with its more dense nutrient profile while meeting the fiber and forage needs of your horse with grass hay. An ideal ratio is 2/3 grasses and 1/3 legumes.
Cut of the hay
Hay harvest time is one of the most influential factors in determining hay quality. As grasses and legumes continue to grow and mature, the amount of valuable nutrients such as protein and energy decreases. Hay quality is not determined by cutting, but rather by the stage of maturity at the time of cutting. Forage analysis should be used to determine the actual values of proteins, digestible energy and other valuable nutrients. First cut hay can contain as much protein as second cut hay. In general, first cut hay will generally be lower in protein than second cut hay. The second cut is richer in protein.
To conclude, it is important to take into account the needs of our horse before buying hay. The best way to make sure you choose the right hay is to ask the seller for an analysis or to do an analysis yourself before you buy it. It is thanks to this analysis that we can ensure that this hay meets the needs of our horse.