Proper hay use vital to horse operation

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STILLWATER, Okla. - Horse owners who find themselves facing a shortage of hay need to ensure they are getting the most out of available hay supplies.

“Making good use of available hay requires selecting the right combination of hay and grain, purchasing hay wisely and feeding it in a way that decreases waste,” said Dave Freeman, an Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension equine specialist.

Amount of hay. General recommendations call for all horses to eat a minimum of 0.75 percent to 1 percent body weight per day in long stem forage from hay or pasture.

However, horse owners who feed grain mixes that have added fiber sources above normal concentrate levels, sold as complete feeds, can reduce the amount of hay.

“When feeding complete feeds, horse managers still should feed at least 0.5 percent body weight in hay per day to guard against behavioral problems in horses, as well as possible problems when moving horses on and off these feeds from rations with longer stem fiber sources,” Freeman said.

Alleviate boredom. Freeman said the need for long stem forage is especially important to alleviate boredom in horses confined to small areas with no grazing opportunities.

Also, hays differ in amounts and digestibility of nutrients.

Use of low-quality grain mixes that provide insufficient levels of protein, energy, minerals or vitamins will increase operational reliance on nutrients from hay.

“Brood mares, growing horses, show horses and athletic horses all require a high level of nutrition,” Freeman said.

Quality, type. Hay type and maturity affect hay quality.

As a plant matures, protein and energy content decreases. Thus, hays cut late in maturity will have less required nutrients per weight than immature hays.

“Legume hays such as alfalfa typically have more protein per weight, calcium and slight increases in energy than grass hays,” Freeman said.

Freeman suggested horse owners do some simple mathematics to ensure hay purchases are made cost-effectively.

For example, a 15 percent protein hay that costs $100 per ton figures out to each pound of protein costing 33 cents: 2,000 pounds times 15 percent equals 300 pounds of protein costing $100.

Ten percent protein hay that costs $70 per ton works out to 50 cents per pound of protein.

“Horse owners should determine what grains they are combining with hay choices and the levels of each they are expecting to feed,” Freeman said.

“Once they have determined these two management items, they can compare the cost of different rations of similar nutrient value.”

Storage investment. Freeman said it is a good idea for horse owners to invest in storage facilities for an estimated yearly supply.

Adequate facilities allow owners to purchase hay in large amounts, thus increasing the odds of getting the best buy and guarding against changes in nutrient levels by using hays from several different cuttings.

“Estimate operational need by calculating pounds needed per day until next spring or summer, when the owner hopes to be able to purchase from next year’s hay crop,” Freeman said.

Storage facilities must ensure protection of hay from moisture so mold or leaching of nutrients will not decrease hay value. The same is true for hay in feeding bunks that is exposed to wet weather.

“Horse managers also need to remember that feeding hay on the ground as opposed to properly constructed bunks can waste large amounts of hay, so much that animal performance can decrease and operational cost increase, sometimes dramatically,” Freeman said.

Hay loss. Round bale use presents special problems in loss and exposure to wet weather, although cost and labor of feeding is less.

“Those with equipment to move round bales may want to invest in hay troughs large enough to hold the bales above ground,” Freeman said.

“Those using square bales generally are better able to regulate supplies.”

Horse owners can get additional information on equine feeding management by contacting their local Extension office.

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