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Selecting Hays For Horses

High quality forage normally makes up 40-100% of the horses diet, depending upon work load and physiological stage of development. Horses readily eat several kinds of grass and legume hay, especially when it is leafy and of high quality. There are two primary ways to evaluate hays (a) chemical testing, (b) visual appraisal. While visual appraisal can give a general indication of the quality, only; chemical testing can estimate the nutritive value. In addition to the nutritive value of hay, one needs to know:

The feed value of other sources of feed so an equitable price comparison can be made.
If the horse will eat enough of the hay to meet its nutritional requirements?


Factors To Consider When Evaluating Hay

Plant Maturity is probably the single most important factor influencing nutrient content and quality of hay. Generally, as a forage plant advances in maturity, the percent protein, energy digestibility, intake and leafiness decreases; at the same time, the percent fiber, lignin and stem increases. 

Therefore, when evaluating hay, pay close attention to the factors which indicate stage of maturity. Of course, hay that is moldy, dusty or contains toxic plants or insects can nullify the value of proper stage of harvest. Texture pertains to stem size (length & diameter) and softness (pliability or flexibility). Texture gives some indication of the palatability or acceptability by animals.

Large, long stems which are hard and rigid are undesirable.
Small, flexible stems are desirable.

Color is an unreliable measure of hay quality. It is influenced by fertilization, sun bleaching, curing, moisture content and species. All hays will gradually "lose color" with storage.

A bright, dark green color in hay usually indicates high vitamin and protein content.
Browning of hay usually indicates a loss of nutrients. A dark brown color occurs in heat-damaged hay while a lighter shade brown is evident in un-bleached hay.
Aroma. Smell the hay for any unusual odors. 

A musty or moldy odor indicates that the hay was baled too wet. If this odor is detected, check for evidence of mold.

Mold will appear as a grayish white, flaky substance or "dust", usually located in tightly packed sections of the bale.
PRESENCE OF MOLD USUALLY ELIMINATES THE HAY AS A HORSE FEED.

Foreign Material - All materials considered foreign to pure or mixed hays will alter the nutritive value, and some may be dangerous such as: rushes, stubble, bottles, glass, wire, burs, thorns, barbs, poisonous plants and others. 

If you wish to have get a forage analysis done on hay, contact Ben Chase, Rockingham County Livestock Agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at 336-342-8230 (or your county Extension Office) and request the forage analysis kit. In North Carolina the Department of Agriculture conducts the analysis for ~$10 a sample for In-State Residence.
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Ben E Chase
Email : benchase@rockingh.ces.ncsu.edu 
Phone : (336) 342-8230

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