EQUINE - Hay issues?

1 Dec 2017

Issued date December 2017

During winter the majority of horse owners have to rely on conserved forage (to a lesser or greater degree) to satisfy the fibre requirements of their equines.  That is namely hay, haylage or even straw.  There is an anticipation that decent hay will be in short supply by the end of the winter. Haylage is not such an issue as it was mostly cut earlier but as hay, straw and silage supplies dwindle across the livestock sector then this will almost definitely impact on stocks available for equines, with a cost to match this shortage. It would be wise to extend your existing forage stocks as much as possible but how can this be done, whilst still maintaining the health and well-being of your horse?

Fibre digestion

The horse’s digestive system is designed to process forage and lots of it.  Around 60% of the horse’s digestive capacity is in the large intestine (caecum, colon and rectum). The large intestine is host to a large population of good bugs whose main function is to achieve microbial fermentation of fibre in the ‘hind gut’.  The way that the horse’s digestive tract is designed means that, in order to maintain correct digestive tract function, horses must receive a minimum of 1% of their body weight daily as long-stem fibre. This is an absolute minimum and 2%-2.5% would be more appropriate in the majority of cases. 

Feeding Haylage

There may be more haylage than hay available this year and if you are looking for high energy forage for poor doers then generally speaking haylage is a better bet. Although the nutritional quality of haylage may be generally better than hay (but not always), it is imperative that more is fed on a weight basis compared to hay as approximately 40% of haylage is water as compared to 20% for hay. Feed about one and a quarter times as much haylage as hay, and remember to introduce haylage gradually, if your horse is used to hay, by making the swap over period over at least a week. 

Late Cut Hay/Haylage

There will also be a good proportion of late cut hay/haylage this year.  Certain schemes that farmers are in mean that they cannot cut their grass before a certain date meaning that they missed the weather window in June/early July.  All that this means is that the grass was at a later stage of maturity when it was cut.  More mature grass swards are stemmier and contain more fibre than earlier stage grass. This means that it is ideal for the majority of horses and ponies, keeping them occupied and in good health without piling on too many pounds. Remember we should be actively encouraging weight loss over the winter in good doers and the tougher, stemmier hay or haylage is ideal for that. 

Be slightly wary of haylage that originally set out to be hay as it may have been baled too dry and therefore not have preserved correctly.  As always, avoid any haylage or indeed hay with blue or green mould or where the packaging has been punctured. If you have a horse that struggles to keep condition over the winter it would be worth your while seeking out a source of earlier cut haylage. If this is not possible, then you may have to consider upping the nutritional density of any bucket feeds that you give, with higher oil type products and/or more meals a day. Other options are outlined below.


If you are worried about the supply of hay running out, some of your hay requirements can be replaced with bagged chops.  Rather than wait till you are short on hay and then be forced to rely entirely on chopped forages, it would be better to start replacing some of the hay portion in the early part of the winter. Chops will replace hay on a weight for weight basis and can be selected according to the type of horse you are feeding and the amount of work it is doing.  Feed the chop separately from the normal concentrate feed and leave the bucket for the horse to pick at as he pleases, along with his haynet. An extra-large tubtrug (secured in a tyre) full of Alfalfa or Grass chop, left overnight can make a huge difference to a poor doer.  There may be some problem with horses eating these too quickly, in which case some rounded stones, salt lick blocks or a football in the chop bucket will slow them down a bit.  Products such as alfabeet, horsebeet etc can be used in the bucket feed to boost energy intake and fibre provision in poor doers, and of course the use of high oil, high fibre feeds will help to keep condition on.  For good digestive health it is best to provide your horse with long stem fibre of some description (minimum of 1% of bodyweight) which is why it is best to use bagged chops to replace some of the hay portion and not all.  Remember that last year’s hay, as long as it has been stored well, will still have the same energy value etc as it did, it will just be lacking in vitamins which is easily balanced for by using a good quality, vitamin and mineral supplement.


In previous years, I would have been a big advocate of using oat or barley straw for good doers, if hay and haylage become scarce but this year straw is in very short supply and any that is about is likely to be full of mycotoxins and mould. I would therefore avoid feeding straw even if you can get it and certainly think twice about using it as bedding, although the price will likely be prohibitive anyway.

Forage wastage

Where possible use slow feeder type strategies to minimise wastage, even for those considered poor doers. There are many options available from small holed haynets to nets that will cover a whole bale (you can even double wrap a big bale for good doers) and some fancy contraptions if you only have one or two horses or are feeding small bales. This is preferable to wasting what could be a precious commodity this winter.

Finally don’t forget to make sure that your horses have access to clean, fresh, unfrozen water as much as possible. 

Related Content