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Good-Quality Forage Important for Horses

Sunday, April 5th, 2020
Good-Quality Forage

close up horse eating hay

During times when pasture is not available, such as after a drought or wildfire, the selection and purchase of hay or other forage sources becomes a vital decision for horse owners. The quality and nutrient content of the hay or forage source is critical because it is the foundation of the horse’s diet and provides 50 to 90% of the total nutrient intake for many horses.

Why should horse owners be concerned about good-quality forage sources for their horses? Due to the horse’s unique and delicate digestive system, it needs to consume a minimum of 1% of its body weight daily (dry matter) as forage in the form of hay, chaff, and pasture together with some grain.

Most horses are fed more than that amount, receiving 2% of their body weight per day in grass or hay alone. This means that a 450 kg (1,000 lb) horse will easily eat 5 to 7 kg (11 to 15 lb) of forage per day, along with 1.5 to 3 kg (3.3 to 6.6 lb) of a grain ration in order to maintain a healthy digestive system and good body condition. For lactating mares or young growing horses, hay consumption is much higher and can be as much as 3% of body weight.

When problems occur that may relate back to nutrition, people usually look at the grain ration. However, when the vast majority of the horse’s diet is hay or grass, we must pay more attention to the important role that hay or another forage plays in the horse’s nutritional status.

Several factors affect the quality, and therefore the nutrient content, of hay. These include plant species, fertilization, maturity at time of harvest, rain and sun when hay is harvested, climatic conditions, storage conditions, and age (time since cutting). The maturity of the plant at time of harvest determines the hay quality more than any other factor.

Legume hays such as lucerne (alfalfa) or clover have higher protein, energy, and calcium contents than grass or cereal hays. They are also usually more palatable and often a better value. Hay for horse consumption should be baled from grass that is in early maturity. The hay should have been allowed adequate curing time, and ideally was baled and stored without being rained on. If the hay was baled too green or was rained on, there will often be mold within the bale. This may be detected by smell or discoloration of stems. If hay gets wet after cutting, it can be dried to avoid mold, but often the stems are discolored and a lot of the sugar and energy are washed out of it. When certain types of mold are consumed by the horse, serious complications such as colic can arise.

After drying, some hay is very dusty. This is often more of a health risk than mold. Every time a horse buries its nose in dusty hay or picks up a piece and shakes it, there is a cloud of dust. Continuously breathing in dust at such close range will quickly lead to lung problems. The short term effect is acute pneumonia, with difficult breathing and coughing. The chronic effects are those seen with the condition of heaves or emphysema. This condition can be managed with medication, but never cured. If dusty hay is all you have, soaking the hay will keep the dust down but will also wash out some of the sugar and energy.

Most people buy hay based on how it looks, smells, and feels. These are qualitative factors, and they are important. When appraising hay, keep in mind the following points:

  • It’s what’s inside that counts. Ask that one or several bales be opened so you can evaluate the hay inside the bales. Do not worry about slight discoloration on the outside, especially in stacked hay.
  • Choose hay that is as fine-stemmed, green, leafy, and soft to the touch as possible.
  • Avoid hay that is excessively bleached or discolored, or that smells moldy, musty, dusty, or fermented.
  • Check for leaf loss. If the leaves of lucerne (alfalfa) or clover hay fall too easily off the stems, the horse won’t be able to eat them.
  • Examine the leaves, stems, and flowers or seed pods to determine the level of maturity.
  • Select hay that has been baled when the plants are in early bloom (for legumes) or preferably before seed heads have fully formed in grasses.
  • Avoid hay that contains significant amounts of weeds, dirt, trash, or debris.
  • Some cereal hays such as barley and triticale hay can have sharp awns if cut and baled when too mature.
  • Examine hay for signs of insect infestation or disease. Be especially careful to check for insects in lucerne (alfalfa).
  • Reject bales that seem excessively heavy for their size or feel warm to the touch. They may contain excess moisture that could cause mold or spontaneous combustion.
  • When possible, feed hay within a year of harvest to guarantee the best nutritional value.
  • Store hay in a dry, sheltered area, or cover the stack to protect it from the elements. Allow some air circulation when covering with plastic or tarps.
  • Try to feed hay in a way that reduces wastage. Hay feeders or nets are very useful.


If hay isn’t available, you can feed high fiber feeds that contain a large percentage of chaff. Look at the crude fiber level as a guide.

Remember that hay can make up a large part of the horse’s diet when pasture is limited or nonexistent. If you are working your horses, they will usually need some added grain. Key visual and physical inspection factors include a fresh, clean smell and freedom from dust or mold. If in doubt about the quality of hay, don’t feed it!

Source: By Dr. Peter Huntington

Hay Storage and Use

Thursday, March 5th, 2020

hay storageNationwide, improper hay storage and wasteful feeding methods cause losses of around three billion dollars a year. It is estimated that up to 10% of a farm’s livestock production costs can be traced to inefficient hay management. Proper storage and use will help preserve hay quality, avoiding wasted bales, and provide better nutrition to your horses. Whether you are feeding square or round bales, management of stored hay requires several considerations.

Hay condition at the time of baling is important. Overmature grass contains a large percentage of indigestible fiber and is neither as appetizing nor as nutritious as forage harvested at a less mature stage. Mown hay should be allowed sufficient drying time in the field before baling. Hay that is square-baled at more than 20% moisture or round-baled at more than 18% moisture is subject to mold growth, making it unfit for consumption by horses. There is also a risk of fire due to the heat generated by decomposition.

Hay needs to be stacked so that air can circulate freely as the hay continues to lose moisture. Measures to help ensure proper drying include stacking square bales on edge, leaving narrow gaps between rows of bales, alternating bale orientation in each layer, and keeping stacks no more than four or five bales high. With round bales, care should be taken to avoid stacking too many bales together unless they are well dried. Moisture and heat should be monitored for about two weeks after new hay is stacked in a barn or shed.

A caramel smell may indicate that the hay is becoming hot. A metal pipe or rod driven into the center of the stack can be pulled out from time to time to feel for heat. Hay that is extremely hot or beginning to steam often smolders until the stack is pulled apart, at which time the increased oxygen can cause the bales to burn more rapidly, so caution is advised if there is a reason to suspect this condition.

Stored hay must be protected from ground moisture and rain. A barn loft offers a dry site, but air circulation may be minimal depending on the design of the barn. Stall storage is convenient and safe if the bales are placed on pallets or racks to avoid contact with the ground. Some managers point out the danger of storing flammable hay in a barn where horses are housed, preferring to build separate sheds or barns for hay storage. These structures should be designed to allow easy access to stables and feeding areas, as well as to provide protection from dust, rain, and light. Excessive sun exposure causes a bleached appearance on the top bales, but the discoloration is usually not important if the hay within the bale still appears fresh and green.

Hay can be stored outside if it is stacked on pallets or raised rock pads. Rocks should be 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 8 cm) in diameter in a layer 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) above the ground surface.  Except in very dry climates, tarps or other coverings are often used to protect bales from dust, sun, and rain. The stack should be designed with a peak at the top or center so that rain will run off instead of pooling. Tarps should be carefully checked for holes or tears and should be weighted or tied so they cannot be blown out of place. Some airflow should still take place to carry away excess moisture in new hay. This can be provided by leaving some open space below the bottom edges of the covering.

Unprotected outdoor storage of round bales inevitably leads to some loss of nutrients. Crude protein and soluble carbohydrates decline as hay is exposed to weathering. Although rain usually damages only the first few inches of a tightly rolled bale, any hay stored outside has the potential to contain mold, and very moist or rotted bales bring the danger of botulism.

When feeding horses inside, hay can be placed in a net or rack, or directly on the stall floor. Hay should be at or below the horse’s head level to avoid eye irritation from dust and grass particles. Nets or racks need to be placed so that a horse cannot get a foot or halter caught in them.

When hay is provided to horses outside the barn, it is somewhat more difficult to monitor individual intake. Remember to offer hay from square bales in several widely spaced piles, with at least one pile for each horse so that less dominant animals have a chance to eat. Congregating horses can quickly turn a feeding spot into a mudhole, and moving the feeding place from time to time will help to avoid destruction of pasture. Because horses spread and trample hay as they eat, some hay will be wasted in outdoor feeding. Wastage from round bales can be decreased by setting the bale in a rack or feeding frame.

Regardless of the method of feeding hay, each bale should be checked for mold and foreign objects. Horses should never be offered hay that looks or smells moldy.

Source: Kentucky Equine Research Staff

Hay Selection for Horses

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

When evaluating hay selection for horses,  it’s important to understand that hay can be classified into three general types: legume, grass, and mixed. Mixed hay is usually defined as a blend of grass and legume plants, though some hay producers and horse owners may define it as a combination of several grasses. Like most horse owners, Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., has opened hundreds of bales of hay during her lifetime of owning and caring for horses. While most horse owners are mindful of the hay they offer their horses, Crandell is perhaps more vigilant than most. As a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER), she understands the importance of good-quality hay.

Legume Hay

When evaluating legume hays, Crandell first establishes the type of hay. Although the most popular legume used among horse owners is alfalfa, other legumes such as red or crimson clover, lespedeza, birdsfoot trefoil, and peanut hay are often fed, and these provide horses with high-quality nutrients.

Evaluating hay requires a thorough visual appraisal. Because the outside of a bale can be misleading, especially if it was situated on the edge of a stack with exposure to the sun or other elements, appraisal necessitates breaking open several bales. Small bales can be opened easily, but the same cannot be said for larger round bales. Pure legumes are rarely roundbaled, but if faced with tightly wound round bales that cannot be opened, an instrument designed to remove core samples from the inside of hay bales, called a hay probe, can be used. Probes are used to collect hay samples for chemical analysis and nutrient determination. Hay collected in the probe should be assessed just as carefully as that in entire bales.

Crandell next evaluates the color of the hay. “It might be bright green, brownish-green, or pale green, or it might not be green at all; perhaps it is yellow. Color is not the end-all, be-all in determining hay quality, but it can be a clue to how it was made. If it is bright green, then I know the hay was likely cut at an appropriate time, that it was probably not rained on after cutting, and that it dried quickly and was baled in a timely manner. When baled under optimal conditions, the most nutrients are preserved.”

It is not unusual to run into bales that have both green and brown plant material, according to Crandell. If the leaves are brown, the hay is likely to have less nutritional value, as leaves deliver the most nutrients. If, on the other hand, the occasional stem is brown but the leaves are green and well-anchored to the stem, then the hay is probably still nutritious.

“Yellow, brown, or otherwise faded hay indicates that it was made at a mature stage, laid in the field longer to dry, or possibly rained on after being cut in the field, all of which would indicate lost nutrients through leaching by the sun or rain,” said Crandell.

Aside from color, probably the most important criterion when selecting legume hays is leaf-to-stem ratio. A profusion of leaves and few stems indicates that the hay was made at the desired maturity and that few leaves came loose during baling. The opposite is often true with legumes, and these hays sometimes have an abundance of stems and few leaves. This usually means that the leaves came off during baling or when the hay was lying in the field.

“I also look at stem coarseness, as this tells me the stage of maturity of the plants when they were harvested. The stem contains few nutrients and a great deal of indigestible fiber. Aside from marginal nutrition, if the stems are too mature, horses do not particularly like to eat them,” added Crandell.

The presence of mold, unusual growths on leaves, insects, and suspicious plants is noted. With alfalfa, Crandell recommends a thorough scan of multiple bales for blister beetles. Because these lethal insects often swarm, it is possible for only a few bales to be infected.

“I might shake a couple of handfuls to see how much dust flies off. Almost all hay has some dust, but if a large cloud erupts, it’s probably best to pass but imperatively so if you have a horse with a respiratory ailment aggravated by dust. I almost always try to smell the hay to see if it is fresh, stale, or moldy. If the hay was baled wet, it might have a distinct smell that results from caramelization of proteins,” remarked Crandell.

Other Legumes

While alfalfa is the most well-known legume hay, clover hays are appropriate for horses, even if they are not as popular with horse owners as alfalfa. One reason horse owners often avoid clover is its propensity for mold. Getting clover to dry quickly in the field is challenging for growers, and premature baling of damp hay is the primary reason clover hay is sometimes moldy.

From a nutritional standpoint, clovers and alfalfa are very similar: higher in calcium and protein, and more calorie-dense than grass hays. Red clover is the most common clover hay because it grows taller than white clover and thus provides more yield per acre. Crimson clover is another tall-growing type but tends to be higher in indigestible fiber than red clover. Palatability is usually not an issue, however, as horses are inclined to love the taste of clover and eat it well.

Certain horse owners associate clover with excessive salivation. They mistakenly believe that it is the clover plant that causes horses to slobber, but the causative agent is actually a mycotoxin produced by a fungus that grows on clover. Known as slaframine poisoning, excessive salivation is not life-threatening.

Grass Hays

Popular grass hays can be divided into two basic groups, cool-season and warm-season. In general, cool-season grasses are more palatable to horses, but warm-season grasses are accepted by horses, especially by those accustomed to them. The most common cool-season grasses in the United States are timothy, orchardgrass, ryegrass, fescue, redtop, reed canary grass, and occasionally bluegrass in the East; and wheatgrass, blue grama, bluestem, and meadow in the Midwest and West. Warm-season grasses include Bermuda grass (referred to as coastal), bromegrass, and most recently teff.

A special category of grasses are cereal hays. These hays are made from leaves, stems, and grains of oat, barley, and wheat plants. A good quality cereal hay is harvested when the grain is immature (soft dough stage) and the leaves and stems are still green, and therefore higher in digestible nutrients. If the cereal hay is harvested after the grain is removed, it is no longer considered hay but straw. Oat hay is the most common cereal hay fed in the United States, and if harvested at the right time, it is quite palatable to horses.

For some horse owners, the gold standard among grass hays is timothy due largely to its extreme palatability. Though Crandell agrees that timothy is appetizing to most horses, she also believes “the most palatable hay to a horse is the type he is accustomed to.” Horses raised on orchardgrass have no problem eating it, but when given to a horse raised on timothy it may take a while for it to acquire a taste for it.

Fescue has gained much attention over the last couple decades for its sometimes detrimental effects on pregnant mares when it is infected with an endophyte fungus. As a pasture grass, horses seem to consume more of it in the fall after a frost has hit and the sugar content has risen. As hay, it would be harvested in the spring and summer so palatability might not be an issue for certain horses

Crandell uses the same process of evaluating grass hays as she does for legumes. To determine the type of grass, seed heads are the most telling, though blade characteristics are also useful. “Fescue blades roll up lengthwise when dried, while orchardgrass blades dry open, so it is very easy to distinguish these two plants. Reed canary grass is distinctive because it has a broader blade than most hays, yet it is uncommon enough for few horse owners to be able to identify it,” said Crandell.

Distinguishing hay types is important, if only from the standpoint of purchasing the appropriate hay. “Many orchardgrass hays are sold as timothy because the average horse owner does not know the difference in the seed heads. On the east coast of the United States, I would say a mix of grasses in a hay is more common than any pure single-species hay like you find on the opposite coast,” remarked Crandell. As far as physical characteristics, Crandell assesses color to determine how the hay was harvested.

The color is somewhat dependent on the type of hay. Timothy hay is usually lighter in color than orchardgrass unless the orchardgrass is harvested at a very mature stage. An overall brownish tinge could mean the hay was baled too wet and went through a caramelizing stage. Warm-season hays are typically not as attractive as the cool-season types, as they are often more golden in color. Cereal hays should be light green in color; a yellow, straw-like color would indicate that the hay was harvested too late and will be of lower nutritional value.

She then estimates plant maturity. “Maturity is judged by the number and age of the seed heads, ratio of leaves and stalks, color, and texture. I grab a handful or two to get an idea of the hay’s texture. Early-maturity hays are softer to the touch than late-maturity ones.” As with legumes, Crandell checks for dust and unusual odor indicative of mold.

Mixed Hays

The term mixed hay can be an ambiguous one, which makes clarification essential. Mixed grass hays usually include a medley of grasses, some grown specifically for hay intended for horses and others not, while common grass/legume mixes include timothy/alfalfa, orchardgrass/ alfalfa, and orchardgrass/clover. “I have seen lovely bales of the classic timothy/alfalfa mix. Specifically, the orchardgrass/red clover mix is especially useful for picky eaters. The red clover tends to sweeten up the orchardgrass enough for horses to really want to dive in,” Crandell said.

Mixing grasses with a legume has two notable benefits. The first involves improvement of the land. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil, so growing legumes with grasses can cut down on fertilizer needs and growing costs. The other advantage involves palatability, as adding a legume to a grass can increase sweetness and consumption. Introduction of a legume also improves the quality by increasing energy, protein, and calcium.

Some horse owners prefer grass/legume mixes over pure legume because a mixture more or less averages the content of certain key nutrients to make it appropriate for different classes of horses. A practical advantage occurs as well: when grasses and legumes are grown together it is more difficult for horses to pick out the tasty portions, as they could if fed a flake of legume and a flake of grass.

Understanding the ins and outs of hay selection is an important aspect of horse ownership. The true test of hay quality rests with the horses, though, and if they offer up their approval by consuming it readily, selection was a success.

Micro-Max is a low-intake concentrated source of vitamins and minerals for mature horses. Micro-Max is ideal for horses that maintain body weight on diets composed entirely of forage or forage and small amounts of concentrate. Learn more.

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