Hay for Horses
The horse hay market has been a stable market for many farmers
for a number of years. The demand for "quality horse hay"
is strong with price fluctuations depending on availability. The
1996 Ontario Horse Industry Study indicates that hay valued at $100
million is consumed by horses in Ontario annually.
Horses consume 2-2.5% of their body weight in dry matter daily.
Forage in the form of hay and hay cubes will comprise 50-100% of
the dry matter requirements. Therefore, a 1000 lb. mature horse
can be expected to consume 22-24 lb. of hay daily on an as fed basis.
(1000 lb. x 2% or 1000 lb. x .02 = 20 lb. of dry matter. Hay is
90% dry matter; therefore, 20 lb. of dry matter is equal to 20 x
100/90 = 22 lb. of hay on an as fed basis). Assuming that a small
square bale of hay weighs 50 lb., this represents about ½
a bale of hay per day per mature 1000 pound horse. (For the purposes
of this article, the term "bale" refers to a 50 lb. small
square bale of hay. However, there is a large variation in bale
weight from as low as 30 lb. up to 60 lb. Therefore, it is best
to weigh a number of bales and get an average for your hay.)
Young horses and horses actively participating in a sport will
consume at least 1% of their body weight in dry matter. The remaining
nutrients will be provided from whole grain, fat and/or commercially
There are 293,000 horses in the province of Ontario. Therefore,
we can estimate that 150,000 bales of hay or their equivalent are
consumed daily for approximately 220 feeding days per year. This
equates to 33 million bales per year. Since the Ontario horse population
can also be broken down by county, hay producers could estimate
the horse hay market for their region. For the counties of Wellington
and Waterloo with 13,533 and 16,485 horses respectively (30,000
horses in total), the horse hay market would amount to approximately
15,000 bales per day or 3.3 million bales per year based on 220
feeding days per year.
Hay and Hay Quality
Hay can be a composition of one or more legumes or grasses at various
proportions depending on the composition of the plants in the field
from which the hay was harvested. The proportions will vary from
the original seeding proportions. They will depend on the success
of seed germination, the age of the hay stand (years since planted),
whether it is first or second cut hay, and growing conditions such
as amount of rain. A first year seeding of an alfalfa/timothy mix
(ratio of 70:30) may yield a 70:30 alfalfa/timothy hay in the first
cut of the first year. However, in Ontario, the second cut will
be almost pure alfalfa. Grasses such as timothy prefer cooler, wetter
periods of the year and do not regrow until later in the summer.
The proportion of alfalfa in the hay stand in subsequent years will
also decrease due to winter kill and disease.
Alfalfa hay is well accepted by horses. Because horses are selective
grazers, given the opportunity, they will readily consume the leaves
and push the courser stems aside. Horses are commonly seen "vacuuming"
the bottom of the hay manger for the leaves. When fed on the ground,
20-25% of the nutrient value of the hay is lost into the dirt, especially
when feeding alfalfa hay with its high leaf content. Alfalfa hay
has to be fed with some care because of its high calcium level in
relation to phosphorus (range from 5:1 to 8:1). Younger growing
horses and pregnant mares should receive a balanced ration containing
sufficient calcium and phosphorus and in the ratio of 1.5:1 to a
maximum of 2:1. Ratios of calcium to phosphorus greater than this
can cause growth and development problems such as epiphysitis.
is an excellent source of protein and energy. Adult horses require
10-11% crude protein in their overall diet while growing horses
require 12-14%. Pure alfalfa hay, as found in second cut hay, can
have protein levels up to and exceeding 18% protein. This high level
of protein is not required for most horses. Excess protein from
both hay and grain feed sources will be broken down into carbohydrates
and serve as additional source of energy. The nitrogen radical will
be excreted in the urine. This will lead to increased urination
and wetter bedding. It is uncommon for horses to have a kidney problem;
however, those that do might have difficulty excreting the higher
levels of nitrogen as found in alfalfa hay.
Horses like clover and will select the highly palatable clovers
from the pastures and hay. The white clovers have 1/3 less fibre
content than other roughages such as bromegrass and alfalfa. White
clover in its lush stage of growth could contain 22-25% crude protein
on a dry matter basis. The digestible energy content of lush clover
is also very high.
Dutch or common white clover is a low growing plant (less than 5
inches) which grows well in pastures but is too short to harvest
for hay. In a fresh state it is very high in carbohydrate content
and low in fibre content. Ladino clover is a tall white clover but
is easily killed by Ontario winters. Red clover is a biennial which
means it will live for about two years and then will die off unless
it is allowed to re-seed itself. As a hay crop, clover is hard to
dry and becomes moldy. These molds can contain estrogenic properties
which can interfere with the reproductive cycles of mares.
are particularly useful because they can be used to improve pastures
and hay fields by frost seeding. The clovers, however, can also
produce slaframine which is known as the "slobber factor."
Slaframine will make horses salivate profusely. This is commonly
seen in some parts of North America. Red clover has also been associated
with red urine in some horses. Porphyrins are excreted into the
urine and will oxidize and turn red. This is usually seen during
the winter when horses urinate on the snow.
Alsike clover must be differentiated from the other clovers because
it can cause photosensitivity and hepatic failure in horses. Horse
pastures and hay fields should not contain alsike clover.
is a perennial which can spread throughout pastures and hay fields,
increasing each year. It is promoted as a permanent pasture because
of this tendency to increase. It also does well on poorly drained
soils. However, it contains a bitter tannin which many horses dislike
and refuse to eat. Some horses, which have been accustomed to it,
graze it readily.
Grass hay commonly consists of one or more of the following grasses:
timothy, bromegrass, orchard grass, reed canary, perennial rye,
Canada or Kentucky bluegrass and fescue.
Most of the grasses grown in Ontario produce a seed head early
in the season, before the time that the weather is reliable enough
to cure hay. Therefore, by haying time, their nutrient content will
have decreased to the 9-12% crude protein range, or lower, on a
dry matter basis. For the grasses to be harvested at their highest
nutrient content, e.g., 20-22% protein, they would have to be cut
very early in the season before the seed head has emerged from the
boot stage. This is often when the weather can't be relied upon
to make good hay.
Timothy is the traditional grass of horses and is recognized by
its spike-like panicle. Timothy is easy to establish and cures easily.
Bromegrass is a tall grass which grows readily on well drained soils.
It is difficult to plant because of its large, light, fluffy seed
which causes difficulties with many seeders. The tall fescues have
fibrous root systems which are good for high traffic areas. Tall
fescues can contain a seed-borne fungus (endophyte) which can extend
the gestation length of pregnant mares. This will result in delayed
births and dead, weak or dying foals. The bluegrasses have shallow
root development and, therefore, have poor growth in the hotter
parts of the summer. However, they create a good sod that will withstand
Common Pasture Grasses
What Hay Growers Should Know:
Hay growers have been taught to harvest hay in the early flower
stage to obtain high protein/energy hay. There is little concern
whether the hay has been rained on a bit since the aim is for hay
with the highest protein /energy content. This is completely opposite
to the horse owner who equates hay that has been rained upon with
Most horses don't require hay with a high protein content. Horse
hay can be harvested later in the haying season when the plants
are in full flower. This will result in a higher yield of dry matter
but the hay will be lower in protein and energy. The later harvesting
will give the farmer some flexibility in haying and, hopefully,
less chance of being rained upon. Horse hay must not have been rained
Hay producers should get to know their clients' wants and needs.
Take an interest in the client's horses and their needs. There will
always be a market for small square bales of quality hay as most
horse owners do not have the equipment to handle large round or
square bales. However, there may be opportunities to provide a service
of delivering large bales directly into feeders on a weekly basis.
What the Horse Owner Needs to Know:
Horse owners determine quality of hay by: freedom from dust, green
in colour, freedom from weeds and being able to recognize timothy
spikes. These are not good indicators of quality. Therefore, horse
owners need to be able to differentiate: between the different grasses
and legumes; when a hay is high or low in protein and energy; which
hay should be fed to young growing horses and which hay could be
fed to the adult non-active "lawn ornaments" that frequent
Nutrient content is more precisely measured by laboratory analysis.
A balanced ration recommendation can be prepared to meet the individual
horse's needs. Sample bags, hay core sampler and sampling instructions
can be provided by your regional agricultural extension office or
feed company representative. Interpretation of the result can be
provided by your veterinarian, feed dealer or agricultural representative.
Freedom from weeds and poisonous plants is usually not a problem
when hay is harvested from fields which have been cultivated regularly.
However, on marginal or low fertility lands, plants such as ferns
and horse tail can take over and pose a problem. The Ontario Ministry
of Agriculture and Foods' Publication 505, Ontario Weeds, is an
excellent reference for identifying weeds. Factsheets on poisonous
weeds are available from the regional offices of the Ontario Ministry
of Agriculture and Food.
- Wright R., Cation J., 1996 Ontario Horse Industry Study, Ontario
Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
- Robinson S., Clare S., Leahy M., Pasture Production, Ontario
Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Pub. 19.