Selecting Hay for Your Horse
Lori K. Warren, PhD, PAS
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida
Forage, in the form of hay or pasture, is the
most important component of your horse's diet.
Forage provides essential nutrients, including
protein, minerals and vitamins. The fiber in
forage provides a source of energy, helping to
meet the horse's caloric needs. Fiber is also
needed to maintain gut health and motility.
Because forage is the foundation of any feeding
program, selection of a hay that is appropriate
for your horse is very important.
This article will provide guidelines for visual
appraisal of hay quality, tips on how to interpret
a hay analysis report, and discussion on what
types of hay work for specific types of horses.
Determining value when buying hay will also be
The quality of any given hay can be influenced
by many factors, including the type of hay,
fertilization practices, stage of growth at which
the hay was cut, how it was cured, and how it
was stored. Many of these factors can be
subjectively assessed by visual appraisal of the
hay. The following is a description of visual
criteria that can be used to evaluate hay quality.
1) Type of hay
Legumes, such as alfalfa or perennial peanut,
generally produce higher quality forage than
grasses, such as timothy, orchardgrass, and
Coastal bermudagrass (Table 1). This is because
legumes usually have less fiber, which results in
greater energy (or calorie) content, as well as
greater intake by the horse. Legumes also are
typically higher in protein and calcium than
Differences in nutrient content between different
grass hay varieties are much smaller than
differences between legumes and grasses (Table
1). Cool-season grasses (grown in temperate
climates) include timothy, orchardgrass, fescue
and annual ryegrass. Warm-season grasses
(adapted to tropical and subtropical regions, like
Florida) include Coastal bermudagrass, Tifton-85
bermudagrass, and bahiagrass. There are some
minor differences between cool-season grasses
and warm season grasses; but if cut at a similar
stage of maturity, these differences are minimal.
Grass/legume mix hays, such as timothy/alfalfa
or Coastal/peanut, have a nutrient composition
intermediate between grass and legume hays
(Table 1). Nutrient composition of these hays is
highly dependent upon the proportion of grass
versus legume forage present in the mix.
Digestible Acid Detergent Crude Protein Calcium Phosphorus
Hay Variety Energy Fiber
(Mcal/lb) (%) () () (
Alfalfa 0.8 to 1.1 24 to 34 15 to 22 0.9 to 1.5 0.2 to 0.3
Perennial 0.8 to 1.0 28 to 38 10 to 15 0.9 to 1.5 0.2 to 0.3
Orchardgrass 0.7 to 1.0 30 to 40 7 to 11 0.3 to 0.5 0.2 to 0.3
Timothy 0.6 to 1.0 30 to 40 6 to 11 0.3 to 0.5 0.2 to 0.3
Bermudagrass 0.7 to 1.0 28 to 38 6 to 11 0.3 to 0.5 0.15 to 0.3
Grass/legume 0.8 to 1.0 27 to 36 12 to 18 0.8 to 1.2 0.2 to 0.3
mix hay____ _
*Source: Dairy One, Feed Composition Laboratory
2) Stage of plant maturity when cut
One of the most important factors affecting hay
quality is the plant's stage of maturity at the
time the hay is cut. The life cycle of grasses and
legumes is presented in Figure 1. Grasses begin
as leafy young plants, enter the "boot" stage
when seed heads begin to emerge and are in the
"heading" stage when the seed heads have fully
formed at the tip of the stem. When seed heads
begin to shed their small seed, grasses are said
to be in full "bloom" or flower. Legumes also
begin as leafy young plants; however, instead of
forming seed heads, legumes mature by forming
flowers. Legume flowers begin as small buds
that eventually mature into bright purple
(alfalfa) or yellow (perennial peanut) flowers.
veoflativ Boot Early Hod Heading Flower
Veolotive Early Bud Bud Flower
Figure 1: Identifying plant stage of maturity
Quality of any forage declines with advancing
maturity. The amount of leaf material decreases,
resulting in a drop in protein content; and the
amount of stem material increases with
maturity, resulting in an increase in fiber that
becomes harder to digest (Figure 2). Along with
a decline in nutrient content, voluntary intake by
horses will decrease with stage of maturity.
The stage of maturity when the hay was cut can
be evaluated by inspecting the emergence and
condition of seed heads on grass hays and the
appearance of flowers on legumes. The greater
proportion of seed heads, particularly if they are
large and crumble when rubbed (shedding their
seeds), the more mature the grass hay. The
more flowers you can detect in legume hay, the
more mature the hay.
Stem diameter is also indicative of maturity.
Plants typically develop thicker stems as they
mature. Larger stems indicate more fiber,
making them harder to digest and lowering the
calorie content. Thick, twig-like stems also make
the hay coarser, which decreases consumption.
Figure 2: Nutrient content declines with
3) Leaves and stems
Most of the protein, starch, and sugar are
contained in the leaves of hay. As a result, hays
that have a larger proportion of leaf material (ie,
those cut at a younger stage of maturity) will
contain higher nutrient content. Leaves also
contain easily digested fibers, which increase the
calorie content. In contrast, the stems are made
up of fibers that are harder for the horse to
digest. Although some fiber in the diet is
necessary to maintain digestive health, hay that
contains a large proportion of stems, or stems
that are large in diameter (ie, hays cut at a late
stage of maturity), will have a lower calorie and
Legumes hays, such as alfalfa and perennial
peanut, have small, oval shaped leaves with
fragile attachments to the stem. As a result,
legume hays are more prone to leaf shatter
compared to grass hays. Loss of leaves can
occur as a result of baling the hay too dry,
excessive handling of the hay while harvesting,
and improper handling and storage after baling.
Loss of leaf material, regardless of the type of
hay, will reduce its nutritional value.
Horses base their feed choices on taste, as well
as texture. Leaves tend to be softer and are
typically more readily consumed than stems.
The more stems, the coarser the hay.
Legume hays tend to be coarser than grass hays
cut at the same stage of maturity. In addition,
some grass hays tend to be more naturally
"soft" than others-for example, orchardgrass
hay has long, broad leaves that are more pliable
than timothy or Coastal bermudagrass hays.
Texture can be evaluated by squeezing a handful
of hay. If you feel sharp points that make you
uncomfortable, it may also irritate your horse's
muzzle and mouth and he may not readily eat it.
crude protein sums
5) No mold, weeds & foreign material
Before purchasing hay, you should open a few
bales and examine them closely for mold, weeds
and foreign material. Horses should only be fed
Mold can form on hay that has been baled too
wet or hay that has been stored outdoors
unprotected from wet weather. Some molds
produce toxins that can cause colic, abortion and
other complications. Mold spores that become
airborne also irritate the horse's lungs, and may
lead to respiratory infections and heaves.
Moldy hay has a musty smell and can be very
dusty. Patches of black or grey mold may also
be visible, but not always. Beware of hay that is
high in moisture-a bale that seems heavier
than others from the same batch may be
indicative of excessive moisture, which could
support mold growth. Also, avoid hays that feel
hotter than the outdoor temperature (referred to
as "heating"), which suggests mold formation.
Hay that contains weeds should also be avoided.
Most weeds have little nutritional value and
some could potentially be poisonous if eaten.
Hay should also be free from foreign material,
such as trash, baling twine and pieces of wire or
metal, which can cause impaction or possibly
puncture the horse's gut if consumed.
Hay should have a pleasant, faintly sweet smell,
similar to freshly mowed grass. As described
above, hay that smells musty or moldy should
In general, hay should be green. However, the
particular shade of green is not a good predictor
of nutritional quality and can be misleading. For
example, hay produced in the western U.S. is
grown under irrigation, which generally yields a
very bright green color, regardless if the plant is
cut at early heading or more mature at full
bloom. In contrast, hay cut in the eastern or
southern U.S. will often be a lighter green with
some yellowing, but it may still have excellent
nutritional value. Therefore, emphasis should be
placed on stage of growth when selecting hay,
rather the relative shade of green.
Yellowing of hay may occur from rain damage or
from storing hay where direct sunlight can cause
fading. Sun bleaching has little effect on nutri-
tional quality, whereas rain damage may result
in loss of nutrients from leaching. Breaking open
a few bales of hay and inspecting the inner
flakes will help you determine the source of the
yellowing. If the outer edges of the bale are
yellow, but the inside is green, it most likely has
been sun bleached. If the yellow coloration
persists within the interior of the bale, then rain
damage during harvest may have occurred.
Black, gray, or excessively brown hay should be
avoided. As mentioned above, mold contamina-
tion may show itself in the form of black or grey
patches within the bale. Brown discoloration
results from excessive heating of the hay during
or after baling, which reduces the protein and
If you are buying several bales or a large load of
hay, you should also look for consistency
Pick up several bales and compare their weight.
Inconsistent weight between bales can result
from faulty settings on farm machinery, but
more importantly, can also indicate rain damage
or excessive moisture during harvest or storage.
Do all the bales look similar? Differences be-
tween hay bales may be due to different hay
types in the load, hay cut from different fields,
sun bleaching or rain damage, or the length of
storage since harvest. Before you buy, make
sure you know what you are getting.
How tight are the strings? Hay bales that are
tightly bound tend to discourage mold growth,
assuming they were baled at the appropriate
moisture. Loose bales are more difficult to
handle and forage may sift out during storage
resulting in wastage.
Which hay cutting is the best?
Many horse owners favor second or third cutting
hay and believe first cutting to be inferior.
However, a particular cutting does not always
equate to quality.
Many factors, including weather and temperature,
influence plant growth. These factors also control
when a hay producer can cut hay For example,
rainy weather encourages growth, but postpones
harvest, which allows the grass to become more
mature. This can occur regardless of whether it is
the first or the fifth cutting.
Rather than focusing on the cutting, evaluate hay
based on stage of maturity at harvest. Stage of
maturity has the biggest effect on nutrient quality.
Although you can discern much about hay
quality with visual inspection, the only way to
determine nutrient quantity is to submit a
sample to a forage testing laboratory.
Many forage labs can be found in the Yellow
Pages under "analytical laboratories." You can
also find information on how to take a repre-
sentative hay sample and locate a certified feed
testing lab at www.foragetesting.com. The
average cost for analysis starts at about $20.
A lot of information can be obtained with hay
testing. Table 2 contains an example of a hay
analysis report. Nutrient values are reported as
a proportion of the total weight of the feed. For
example, the percent of the feed that is crude
protein or the number of mega-calories of
digestible energy per pound of feed.
To facilitate your understanding of how to read a
hay analysis report, the following is a description
of some key nutrients:
Moisture-is the percent of water the feed
contains. Hays typically contain 10% moisture. A
moisture content less than 10% could indicate
brittleness or excessive leaf loss. A moisture
content greater than 14 to 18% indicates a high
risk for mold.
Dry Matter-is the percent of the feed that does
not include water. Nutrients are often reported
on a "dry matter" basis and an "as-received" (or
"as-fed") basis, the later including the water
naturally contained in the feed. Because feeds
differ in their moisture (water) content, which
can dilute nutrient concentrations, comparisons
between feeds are more accurately performed
by using values on a dry matter basis.
Crude Protein-is the percent of the feed that
is protein. Because of how crude protein is
determined in the lab, the value also includes
other nitrogen-containing compounds, such as
urea or nitrate. If you suspect the feed you are
testing may have high levels of these non-
protein components, you should use caution
when interpreting "true" protein content from
crude protein. The crude protein content of hay
can vary widely from 6 to 24%, and is highly
dependent upon the type of hay being analyzed
and its stage of maturity (see Table 1).
Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF)-is one measure
of the fiber content of the feed and is a good
marker of hay quality. ADF includes cellulose, a
type of fiber that is hard for the horse to digest.
ADF also includes lignin, which is essentially
indigestible. Therefore, ADF content is a good
indicator of the overall digestibility of the hay.
The higher the ADF content, the lower the
quality of the hay. Hays with less than 32% ADF
tend to be very leafy with high nutritional value.
Hays with greater than 37% ADF tend to be very
mature and stemmy.
Because horses obtain calories (or energy) from
fiber, the higher the ADF content, the lower the
digestible energy value of the hay. In fact, ADF
is used to help calculate digestible energy, which
will be described next.
Digestible Energy (DE)-is the amount of
mega-calories per pound (or per kilogram) of
feed. One mega-calorie (Mcal) is equivalent to
1000 human calories. An accurate DE value can
only be determined with a lengthy research trial.
However, a reasonable estimate of DE can be
calculated from the crude protein and ADF
content of the hay. Many forage testing labs
provide you with this calculated DE value. The
DE content of hays varies from 0.7 to 1.2
Mcal/lb of hay (see Table 1). The more mature
the hay, the higher the ADF content, and the
lower the caloric (DE) value.
Minerals and Vitamins-a basic hay analysis
usually includes the macro-minerals: calcium,
phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and sulfur.
Analysis of other macro-minerals, as well as
micro- (or trace) minerals, such as copper, zinc,
and selenium, can usually be requested for an
additional fee. Similarly, many forage testing
labs also offer vitamin analysis for an additional
Other Nutritional Components-most forage
testing labs can provide additional analyses to
help you better evaluate feeds for your specific
situation. For example, if you are concerned with
mold contamination, some labs can perform
mycotoxin analyses. If you have a horse that is
sensitive to starch and sugar, you can request
these components be measured (please note,
however, there is still some debate on the most
accurate way to measure starch and sugar in
feeds). Many forage testing labs also perform
analysis on other types of feeds, such as
supplements and grain products.
If you purchase small quantities of hay, having
your hay tested each time may be impractical.
Although analysis only takes one or two days,
you may not receive your results for 1 to 2
weeks. Many hay producers submit their own
samples for analysis before marketing their hay.
Therefore, when you buy your hay, you should
ask if an analysis has already been performed.
Table 2: Example of a Hay Analysis ReporIt
730 Warren Road Ithaca NY 14850
Ph: 800.496 3344 Fax 607 257 1350
hltp //www daiiyone corn 921
SATE SAMPLED 11B RFCFIVFO DATE PRTED STATE CO FARM
LORI K WARREN
ANI SCI BLD 459 RM 108
GAINESVILLE, FL 32608
ENERGY TABLE NRC 2001
Body Wt = 1350 Fat % = 3.7 Tprot % = 3.1
Milk, Lb Mcal/Lb
1.NRC ENERGIES SMALL BREEDS DO NOT USE
ENERGIES BEYOND 80 LBS. MILK. LARGE
BREEDS USE 120 LB. ENERGY WITH EXTREME
SAMPLE DESCRIPTION FARM CODE i LA SAMPLE
BERMUDAGRASS HAY 115 10155740
ANALYSIS RESULTS A k
% Dry Matter -
t Crude Protein
S Available Protein
% Adjusted Crude Protein
Soluble Protein % CP
Degradable Protein %CP
% Acid Detergent Fiber
% Neutral Detergent Fiber
% Crude Fat
Relative Feed Value
% Chloride Ion
Horse TDN, %
Horse DE, Mcal/lb
One of the most important criteria that should
be considered when selecting hay is the needs of
the horse you intend to feed it to. Not all horses
have the same nutrient needs, so naturally, not
all horses have the same hay needs.
There are two big reasons for matching hay to
1) You can meet more of the horse's
nutritional needs with hay, which requires
the feeding of less grain (or no grain at all).
The feeding of large amounts of grain has
been associated with an increased risk of
digestive disturbances, such as colic, gastric
ulcers and laminitis.
2) You can satisfy your horse's appetite.
Horses have evolved to spend large amounts
of time eating, normally grazing for 9 16 hrs
per day. If a horse with low nutrient require-
ments is fed a very high quality, nutrient-rich
hay, he will have to be fed less or he may
become overweight. This means he will spend
less time eating and could potentially develop
vices such as wood chewing to occupy his
time. If, however, this same horse was fed a
mature hay with lower nutritional value, he
will be able to eat more hay, thus providing
more "chew time" and satisfying his appetite.
Weanlings and lactating mares have the highest
nutrient requirements of all horses. Early- to
mid-maturity alfalfa or perennial peanut, as well
as grass/legume hay mixes with at least 30%
legume, can contribute a lot of nutrition to the
diet of these high-need horses. These types of
hay are also useful for horses with poor
appetites or those that need to gain weight.
Hays with high nutritional value will be very
leafy, fine-stemmed, and will contain very few
seed heads (grasses) or flowers (legumes).
Performance horses, yearlings and 2-year-olds
have moderately-high nutritional needs. Grass
or legume hays cut at mid-maturity work well
for these horses. Grass/legume mixes are also
useful. Hays of moderate to good quality are
leafy and pliable. If seed heads are present, they
should be small and soft, not large and crumbly.
Barren mares and horses used for light recrea-
tional riding have relatively low nutrient require-
ments. Mid- to late-maturity grass hays or late
maturity grass/legume hays are often suitable
for these types of horses. These types of hays
will have obvious seed heads (grasses) or dried
flowers (alfalfa). Stems will be more obvious and
thicker compared to higher quality hays, but the
hay should still be relatively soft to the touch.
Grass hays that are cut at late-maturity may
also have use in some feeding programs. Such
hays may be useful for ponies and other "easy
keepers" that seem to "stay fat on air." Mature
grass hays provide fewer calories, helping the
horse to maintain (or lose) weight, while still
providing lots of chew time. These "stemmy"
hays have coarse, thick stems and almost every
stem will have a large seed head. Even though
these hays are lower quality, they should not be
moldy or full of weeds. The color may be faded
green, but avoid severely rain damaged hay.
Table 3 summarizes the type and characteristics
of hay suitable for different classes of horses.
I 3 TaIbe 3: Gude*i s I o h a t
Weanlings Early- to Mid- Maturity Leafy
Legume hays or Fine stemmed > 14% < 34%
Lactating mares Grass/legume Mix hays Few seed heads/flowers
Performance Mid- Maturity M eaf s
Yearlings Grass or Legume hays or Smallsft edheads, 12 16 % 30 36%
2-year-olds Grass/legume Mix hays small flower s on leg es
small flowers on legumes
Recreation use Mid- to Late-Maturity Grass hays
M Large, soft seed heads, 8 12% 37 40 %
or idle horses Late- Maturity Grass/legume Mix flowers on legumes
Thick, coarse stems
Overweight Late- Maturity Grass hays Lar, brite see s 7 10% > 40%
S, Large, brittle see d heads
*All hay should be clean-smelling and free from molds, weeds and trash; avoid excessive rain damaged hay.
Type of Hay
To maintain good health, forages should be the
largest component of any horse's diet. Most
horses will need to be fed 1.5 to 2% of their
body weight as forage per day. This amount of
hay can quickly turn into a large feed bill.
While it is better to invest money on good forage
than pay for an expensive colic surgery, it also
behooves you to calculate the value of what you
are buying. Knowing how to calculate the cost of
nutrients will also help you to evaluate best buy
when you come across two hays that have
similar quality, but different price.
Two of the nutrients that will help you gauge the
best hay price are crude protein (CP) and
digestible energy (DE). However, you can also
perform the same calculations with any other
nutrient of interest.
Information needed to perform calculations:
1) Cost per bale
2) Average individual weight of the bales
3) CP (%) or DE (Mcal/lb) concentration in hay
Calculating the amount of nutrients per $1
Weight of bale = Pounds of hay per $1
Price per bale
Ibs of hay per $1 X nutrient concentration
= amount of nutrient you get for $1
You are looking to buy a timothy/alfalfa hay
for $10/bale. Each bale weighs 56 Ibs. This
hay contains 13.5% CP and 0.93 Mcal/lb DE.
56 Ib bale
56bbae = 5.6 Ibs hay per $1
5.6 lbs hay per $1 X 0.135 CP
= 0.75 Ibs Crude Protein per $1
5.6 Ibs hay per $1 X 0.93 Mcal/lb DE
= 5.2 Mcal Digestible Energy per $1
Additional suggestions for minimizing hay costs:
" Learn to identify the different types of
grasses and legumes, as well as the criteria
to evaluate hay quality, so you can make
better buying decisions.
/ Buy the type of hay your horse needs.
Spending large amounts of money on high-
quality hay when your horse would perform
just as well with something of lower quality
is wasting money. All those un-needed
nutrients will just end up in the manure.
/ In addition to visual evaluation, have your
hay tested so you know exactly what
nutrients it is providing. Knowing what the
hay provides will help you make better
decisions about what supplements to pur-
chase, or if they are even needed.
/ Buy hay directly from the hay producer,
rather than an intermediate, such as a feed
/ Pick up and load the hay yourself or arrange
your own delivery
/ Consider using locally grown hay, rather
than paying the higher costs of hay imported
from northern states.
Buy larger volumes of hay, rather than a few
bales a week. If you do not have the storage
space, make a long-term investment in a
hay barn, store some at a neighbor's, or ask
the hay producer if they can store it for you
until it's needed. You might also team up
with other horse owners in your area to buy
a larger lot of hay that you can split with
/ Buy hay by the ton, rather than the bale.
Not only might you save some money, you'll
have a more accurate record of the amount
of hay you have purchased, which allows
you to better plan your feeding manage-
/ Anticipate your hay needs and purchase hay
early in the season. Hay often becomes
more expensive when there is large demand,
such as occurs in the winter when more
horses are consuming hay than pasture.