Between 50 and 90 percent of a horse’s diet is made up of hay. Good quality hay can benefit health, while poor quality hay can be detrimental. For those reasons, it’s important to put an emphasis on hay quality when considering your horse’s nutrition.
The stage of plant maturity at the time of harvest is the most important factor in determining hay quality. Younger plants contain more nutrients than older, steamier plants. You want to choose hay cut from younger plants to offer your horse the greatest nutritional value.
Consider these seven factors to determine plant maturity at harvest and to ensure quality hay when selecting your horse’s forage.
1High leaf-to-stem ratio
Imagine eating a salad full of leafy greens. You’re probably not imagining a bowl full of stems. Just like we prefer greens with leaves rather than stems, horses prefer hay with more flat leaves and fewer round stems. A greater ratio of leaves to stems indicates the plant was less mature when cut. More leaves also mean higher digestibility and greater nutrient content.
Finer stems — stems that are smaller in diameter — are another indicator that the hay was less mature at harvest. You can test stem size by grabbing a handful of hay and squeezing it. Quality hay will be soft and pliable, rather than brittle and course.
Minimal seed heads or blooms
No matter what species of plant you choose, hay with little to no seed heads or blooms indicates a higher quality hay.
Smell and appearance
Good quality hay should have a fresh-cut smell and appearance. Avoid musty, moldy or smelly hay. Off-putting smells can reduce palatability and indicate poor quality.
Hay should be primarily made up of harvested forages. You want to look for a clean forage with little to no dust. Even when most of the hay is high quality, contaminants like dirt, mold, weeds, trash and other foreign materials indicate poorer quality and may be unfit to feed horses.
Quality hay should be bright green with very little fading. A bleached yellow, brown or black color indicates aged hay, mold or poor storage conditions.
Make sure you consider where your hay is stored before and after selection. Poor storage conditions and age can significantly impact the vitamin content of hay. Over time many vitamins, such as vitamins A and E, lose biological activity. After about six months, almost all vitamin A and E activity levels are lost. This process can be sped up by exposure to heat, sunlight and rain.
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