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Ten ways to stretch your horse's hay supply

Quick facts

  • Buy hay based on the weight and needs of your horse.
  • Test your hay quality to avoid over and under feeding.
  • Store your hay properly and use a feeder to prevent hay waste.
  • Maximize pasture or consider using hay alternatives.
  • Rehome horses that no longer meet your goals.

Weather concerns such as winter injury, a cool and wet spring, flooded hay fields and frequent rainfall can tighten already short hay supplies in the Midwest.

Flooded fields may have long-term damage from standing water. Forage quality can also decline as wet conditions delay cutting.

Consider these strategies to optimize and stretch your hay supplies.

1. Develop a good relationship with your hay supplier

Stack of small square hay bales

Find and keep hay suppliers that are trustworthy, communicate well and produce a quality product.

A good hay supplier should be:

  • Willing to patiently answer questions.
  • Stand behind their product. 
  • Clearly explain their pricing, delivery and storage structure. 

Become an educated buyer, be aware of local conditions and prices, and be prepared to buy when the forage is available. Both you and your hay supplier should understand weather conditions and be timely with communications. 

2. Maximize pasture during the summer

Wooded horse pasture
  • Using pasture forage costs a third of what it costs to feed hay. 
  • Establish new pastures and maintain existing pastures by mowing, fertilizing, resting for re-growth, dragging and controlling weeds.
  • Consider using annual forages like teff  and annual ryegrass to extend the grazing season into the spring and fall.

3. Purchase hay by weight 

Purchase hay by the ton or average bale weight. It can be difficult to estimate bale weight for large round and square bales as the weight varies based on bale density.

Weighing bales can help you accurately calculate annual hay needs. You may be able to weigh hay bales for a fee at most truck stops and gravel pits. You can use bathroom or luggage scales to weigh small square bales.

For instance, a 35-pound square bale sold for $5 is more expensive ($286 per ton) than a 50-pound bale sold for $6 ($240 per ton).

4. Buy a hay type that matches your horse’s needs

In general, less mature forages are more nutrient dense than more mature forages.

  • Legumes, such as alfalfa, are generally more nutrient dense than cool and warm season grasses.
  • A mature grass hay can meet the needs of a pasture companion. Feeding a pasture companion an immature alfalfa hay may result in overspending and horse weight gain.
  • Always buy good quality hay with no mold, dust or weeds. 
  • Buying hay with preservatives, such as propionic acid, is safe for horses and will help limit mold growth in hay.

5. Have your hay tested for quality

Testing your hay will aid in feeding precision. Testing costs about $20 per sample and results are usually available within a few days.

Choose a lab that has an "equine package" and provides results for equine digestible energy (Equine DE). Use the test results to calculate how much hay each horse needs to avoid over or under feeding. Other nutrients are important too but energy is the first nutrient used to balance a horse’s ration.

  • An average grass hay may contain 0.91 mega calories (Mcals) per pound compared to a mixed grass legume hay with an average of 1.06 Mcals per pound.
  • If an adult horse requires 16 Mcals each day, an owner would feed 18 pounds of the grass hay compared to 15 pounds of the mixed hay to meet the horse's energy requirements.
  • If these hays are the same price per ton, the mixed hay would be a better buy since less of it is needed to meet the horse’s energy requirement.

6. Do not over or under feed

Most horses should eat 1.5 to 2.5 percent of their bodyweight (BW) in feed (forages plus grains) daily. For example, a 1,000-pound horse should eat 15 to 25 pounds of feed daily. For most horses, at least 75 percent of the daily feed should be forage. 

  • Most horse owners should target 2 percent BW.
  • Owners with easy keepers or overweight horses should target 1.5 percent BW.
  • Owners with hard keepers should target 2.5 percent.

Overfeeding can result in excessive horse weight gain, related health issues and wasteful spending. Using these values can help you accurately calculate annual hay needs.

7. Always use a feeder or net to reduce hay waste 

Horses eating from hay net

Thousands of dollars worth of hay are wasted when you don't use a feeder. Feeders can be an investment, but all feeders pay for themselves within one year.  Studies have shown:

  • When feeding small square bales indoors, you can waste 7 percent of hay without a feeder versus only 1 percent with a feeder.
  • When feeding small square bales outdoors, you can waste 13 percent without a feeder versus 1 to 5 percent with a feeder.
  • When feeding round bales outdoors, up to 57 percent waste has been reported without a feeder compared to 5 to 33 percent waste with a feeder.

8. Properly bale wrap and store your hay 

Research found that when harvesting and storing round bales outdoors, dry matter (DM) losses were nearly:

  • 20 percent for bales wrapped with sisal twine.
  • 11 percent for plastic twine.
  • 7 percent for net wrap.
  • Minimal losses with B-Wrap®.

Hay stored indoors will always result in less dry matter loss compared to hay stored outdoors. But not all owners have sufficient indoor storage.

When round bales were stored outdoors without cover, dry matter loss was 7 to 49 percent. Only 2 to 6 percent dry matter was lost when round bales were stored indoors.

Outdoor storage tips:

  • Cover bales with tarps.
  • Keep wildlife away from storage areas.
  • Store bales on a well-drained surface or pallets.
  • Bale or buy a tightly packed bale.
  • Use older bales first.

Consider building additional indoor hay storage to reduce losses and to help ride out market swings and the seasonality of hay production. Properly stored hay will keep for several years. 

Horses eating from a round bale feeder

9. Consider using alternative feedstuffs

Alternative feedstuffs can be economical compared to hay during times of high hay prices. Hay cubes, hay pellets, chopped alfalfa and complete feeds can be used as total replacements for hay, but horses tend to eat these products quickly.

Other fiber sources include rice bran and beet pulp. These feeds cannot fully replace hay, but can be used as partial hay replacements. Whenever you use hay alternatives, work with an equine nutritionist (and your veterinarian if needed).  

10. Consider reducing herd numbers 

Find new homes for horses that no longer meet your goals. A 1,000-pound horse, eating 20 pounds of hay daily, will eat about 7,300 pounds or 3.6 tons of hay annually. If hay is selling for $300 per ton, that is a cost of $1,080 annually.

 

Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist; Marcia Hathaway, professor of animal science, College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences; Hannah Lochner and Jessica Prigge, graduate students, College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2019

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