Tips for horse hay producers – Part 2

Match the quality of your hay product to the needs of your customers.

Making quality hay for horses involves a combination of factors including forage species in the field, capability and condition of equipment, growing season weather conditions, hay-making weather conditions, and the experience and knowledge base of the operator. The old adage holds true: “You do the best you can with Hay samplingwhat you’ve got.” When the hay is made, producers should take a close look at what they’ve got and be prepared to communicate that information to customers in terms everyone understands.

It is essential to get an equine forage analysis from a reputable lab in order to understand how your hay best fits into a horse ration. Several good labs are available to Michigan hay producers. Contact your local Michigan State University Extension livestock, forage or field crops educator for recommended labs. The following are some equine hay quality guidelines from Krishona Martinson of University of Minnesota.

Moisture. The optimum horse hay moisture ranges from 10 to 17 percent. Hay under 10 percent may be too dry, leading to brittle and dusty hay. Hay over 18 percent moisture have a high probability of molding (unless propionic acid is used), and hay over 25 percent moisture poses the threat of severe heat damage and serve as a potential fire hazard.

Crude Protein (CP). Most horses require approximately 10 percent crude protein, except foal, reproducing horses, and horses in heavy work.

Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF). Vales of 30 to 35 percent are recommended, and values above 45 percent are of little nutritional value.

Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF). In theory, the higher the NDF, the less a horse will consume. NDF levels between 40 and 50 are recommended, and those above 65 will likely not be consumed by most horses.

Relative Feed Value (RFV). Although utilized by cattlemen, RFV is not as useful for horse owners.

Non‐fiber Carbohydrate (NFC). NFC should not exceed 20 percent. Although not always perfect, the NFC value is often used as an indicator of the level of starches and sugar in a forage sample. Fructan, a complex sugar, is known to trigger laminitis, a debilitating disease in horses.

Equine Digestible energy (DE). Used to balance the energy portion of the equine diet. For a light working horse, DE should be about 20 Mcal/day.

Calcium (Ca) and Phosphorus (P).

  • For the adult, maintenance horse, the CA:P ration should be between 3:1 to 1:1.
  • For young, growing horses, it is even more important for calcium to be higher than phosphorus to avoid bone development issues.

Recently, there has been significant interest in the sugar and carbohydrate content of hays. The following analyses can be very useful in helping to select a suitable feed for horses, especially those that show sensitivity to starch and sugar. Some labs test for the following (may be an additional charge):

  • Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC). Some horses can be very sensitive to dietary starch and sugar (i.e., horses with Cushing’s disease or laminitis), so the NSC level can be helpful in selecting hay choices. Hay containing greater than 10 percent NSC should not be fed to these horses. Unfortunately, neither NFC nor NSC can give an exact measure of fructans, the complex sugar correlated with founder and other horse health issues.
  • Starch (a sub‐component of the NSC). No more than 15 percent of total daily calories from starch should be fed to horses diagnosed with PSSM (polysaccharide storage myopathy).
  • Ethanol Soluble Carbohydrates (ESC). Includes primarily monosaccharides (glucose and fructose) and disaccharide. Some forage labs will refer to ESC simply as “sugar.”
  • Since sugars are water soluble, good quality, rained on hay is a good choice for sensitive horses.

Martinson also includes a few marketing suggestions:

  • Remember that quality forage should be the backbone of a horse’s diet (forage should be a minimum of 50 percent of their nutritional needs and some horses’ energy requirement can be met with 100 percent hay).
  • Have a good working relationship with your clients. Allow them to ask several questions and be patient as they learn about hay.
  • Convince your clients to buy hay early (do not wait until late summer or fall), add additional hay storage space, and to plan in advance (especially if the price is rapidly changing). First crop hay is an excellent choice for horses and the fiber in earlier cuttings tends to be more digestible.
  • Keep your clients hay type (e.g., grass or alfalfa) consistent. Constantly changing hay types can lead to horse health problems, specifically colic.
  • Have your hay analyzed so you can match the needs of your clients with your hay.

Martinson’s study, “Horse Hay Trends and Marketing Strategies,” has full details.

For more information on producing quality hay for horses in Michigan, see

See Part 1 of this series “Tips for horse hay producers – Part 1.”

Photo credit: Jim Isleib, MSU Extension

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