Many horse owners choose their hay for their horses based on what they think looks good or what they have been told what looks good. When horsemen are asked what they think is good hay, their list often includes:
- No mold or dust
- Fine stems and a lot of leaves
- No weeds
- No bugs or foreign matter
Hay is a harvested plant that has been dried out and cured after it has been cut at various times of its growth cycle, depending on the kind of hay. Some hay grows best is warm, dry climates and others need a cool environment. In order to produce quality hay for feeding horses, it must be cut at the right age and when the weather is dry and warm. After cutting the fields, the hay must dry before it is baled so it does not become moldy. Our most common types of hay include alfalfa, bermuda, orchard, timothy, and orchard alfalfa mix. Each type of hay falls into two categories, legume or grass. The most used legume is alfalfa and the grass category includes bermuda, orchard, and timothy. These forages can be provided in many forms, most popular being three string square bales.
The fiber content of hay increases as it grows, while the protein value decreases. All the important elements that contribute to quality include color, maturity stage at harvest, leaf pattern, storage conditions, harvest conditions, foreign objects, weeds, and pests. Even though many factors affect the quality, no single factor can be used to determine the quality, such as color.
The maturity of the plant in not related to a particular cutting, but rather the stage of maturity when the plant is cut. That is determined by the amount of seed heads in grasses and flowers in legumes visible at the time of harvest. In most cases, hay is cut during the late bud or early bloom phase to maximize the nutritional content. If the hay is cut too early, it can be too rich and cause the horses stomach to get upset. When forage plants are mature, the leaf to stem ratio decreases. Hay baled at an ideal moisture level has more leaves because they have not fallen off due to being so dry. Forages with more leaves and heads are of higher quality.
Pests, weeds, and foreign objects can reduce the hay quality. Unfortunately preventing pests and weeds are more of a concern to the farmer because they can effect their crops. Regardless of the maturity, leafiness, and foreign matter of forage, the visual and sensory appraisal of hay is not adequate to predict the nutrient composition. Therefore we provide current nutritional testing results on our website. Overall, when selecting hay, compare the needs of the horse with the nutrient content of the hay and do not forget to ask your veterinarian any questions regarding your horses specific needs.