Dakota Farmer

Consider 3 factors before buying equine hayConsider 3 factors before buying equine hay

Horse owners should ensure hay is free from dust and mold, is palatable and meets animal’s nutritional needs.

Sarah McNaughton

June 8, 2022

3 Min Read
Horses in field
SHOP WISELY: Your horse might not be able to roam a field to pick and choose what it eats, so when feeding hay, be particular about what you buy.Sarah McNaughton

While some horse owners have the capacity to grow good-quality hay, many must purchase what their horses need. Kevin Sedivec, rangeland specialist at North Dakota State University Extension, shared basic principles when buying hay during a recent equine management webinar.

Sedivec said producers should consider these principles when purchasing hay for their horses, whether putting up hay to feed it yourself or selling it:

1. Free from mold and dust. Depending on when and where hay is harvested, and how the hay it baled, mold and dust can be a great concern for horse owners.

“The first thing I look for when purchasing hay is looking for molds and dusts,” Sedivec said. “If it’s white in color, it’s usually mold. If its gray in color, it’s usually dirt or dust from a gravel road.”

Hay can develop mold if put up with a higher-than-average moisture content, or if it can’t dry normally in storage during wet weather and high humidity. To encourage drying in stored hay, owners can increase ventilation, reduce stack size, stack in alternate directions and create airflow between bales.

Some types of forages are prevalent to dust, such as “bromegrass hay, especially smooth brome, unless its put up on the damp side,” Sedivec said. “Alfalfa can get dusty and, of course, ditch hay.”

Sedivec discourages the use of ditch hay whenever possible. “There are times you’ll have to buy ditch hay,” he said. “Ask if it was grown along a gravel road [and] if it rained when it was put up to reduce the dust.”

Dust and molds can cause health problems such as mold toxicity, colic and even abortions in brood mares.

2. Palatability. Molds and dust can also impact palatability, which is another reason to ensure purchased hay be free from mold and dust. “If the bales pass the molds and dust test, then I can look at the next consideration,” Sedivec said, which is palatability.

Taste of hay, which will depend on the plant type within the hay, also affects palatability. “What species grass did you put up, and how mature was it? That can play the biggest factor in palatability,” he said.

Coarseness is another factor that should not be ignored. To encourage palatability, “we want more leaves and less stems in the leaf to stem ratio,” he said.

Weeds or excessive seed heads can cause horses to refuse hay, or some weeds such as foxtail barley can cause other health problems. When the hay was put up, “were there weeds in there that affected palatability?” Sedivec asked. “If it’s in a hay mix, the barbed flowers can get into their gums, as well as affect their intake.”

3. Nutritional quality. Horses should readily consume good hay, which is rich in carbohydrates and other nutrients. When buying hay, owners should be sure to get the nutritional information of the hay.

“Depending on what I’m feeding, I’ll look for higher protein value for lactating mares, stallions or young horses,” Sedivec said. “If I have geldings or open mares, then I go a little lower on that protein” to reduce costs.

“One thing some people forget to look at is lignin content,” he said. Lignin content or acid detergent lignin should be below 3.5% for horses. If the ADL is above 3.5%, Sedivec said, “You’ll see refusal of consumption by your horses, and individual horses themselves can be very finnicky, and you’ll see a dramatic decrease in intake if your lignin content is high.”

Higher-quality feeds cost more money, and Sedivec said there is no need to overfeed, unless owners are working to improve horse condition. “Buy what you need to meet the animal’s nutritional needs. There’s no need to buy more or higher-quality hay than what your horses need.”

About the Author(s)

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture communications, along with minors in animal science and Extension education. She is working on completing her master’s degree in Extension education and youth development, also at NDSU. In her undergraduate program, she discovered a love for the agriculture industry and the people who work in it through her courses and involvement in professional and student organizations.

After graduating college, Sarah worked at KFGO Radio out of Fargo, N.D., as a farm and ranch reporter. She covered agriculture and agribusiness news for North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Most recently she was a 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D., teaching, coordinating and facilitating youth programming in various project areas.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, serving on the executive board for North Dakota Agri-Women, and as a member in American Agri-Women, Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, enjoys running with her cattle dog Ripley, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

Sarah is originally from Grand Forks, N.D., and currently resides in Fargo.

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