Choosing your winter forage

Clare Barfoot, SPILLERS®

How many of us really pay much attention to the hay or haylage we feed our horses? Often we are just using what is available on the yard or at our local supplier. Stuffing a hay or haylage net every evening is probably as far as most of us get to thinking about what nutrition it is really providing our horse or pony. So should we be paying it more attention? Well, forage should make up the majority of our horse’s diet therefore it pays to give some thought to the quality, quantity and type of forage you choose.

Should I feed hay or haylage?

Hay, silage and their hybrid haylage are all forms of conserved forage which just describes the process of harvesting grass when it is abundant in the summer months to be fed to over the winter months, when the quantity and quality of grass declines. Silage is not ideal to be fed to horses as it tends to be very wet and is higher in energy and protein than horses need. However, whether you choose hay or haylage, the golden rule is to go for the best quality you can. Poor quality forage may contribute to weight loss, respiratory problems and even colic.
Deciding whether to feed hay or haylage can be confusing but ultimately haylage is just damp hay. The nutritional differences can vary just as much between hays as between haylage and hay. The main consideration is how much you feed; a few years ago most horse owners believed that haylage was nutritionally richer than hay and therefore should be fed in lesser quantities. In fact haylage contains more water than hay (at least double the amount!) so you actually need to feed more haylage (approx. 30-50% more by weight) to provide the same level of fibre and nutrition. The main advantage of haylage is that it is damp therefore contains less mould spores that could travel deep down into the sensitive areas of the lungs contributing to conditions such as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO).
Meadow hay vs Seed hay
Meadow hay is harvested from permanent pasture and makes up the majority of hay fed in the UK. It tends to be higher in protein and energy than seed hay. Seed hay is harvested from grass especially sown and grown for hay and can be single species such as timothy. High fibre mature seed hay can be especially useful for good doers and laminitics due to its low energy content.

The good the bad and the ugly…

There are some physical things you can look out for when looking at your forage.

For hay…

It should smell sweet and pleasant, any musty or mouldy smells should be treated with suspicion.
The colour can vary from light yellowy green through to bright green, often it is perceived that the greener the hay the higher in protein it is but you can’t really tell without analysis.
It shouldn’t be damp to the touch, if it is it may not have been dried properly and may be at more risk at going mouldy.
Look for any visible signs of mould

For haylage…

Farmer grown haylage should be well wrapped with at least 6 layers of plastic, don’t buy haylage that has holes in the plastic film as air will be allowed to enter and start the growth of yeasts and moulds.
Again haylage should smell sweet and often slightly fermented but not too acidic like silage.
Make sure there is no obvious soil contamination, as this can increase the risk of botulism.

The only way to tell the nutritional quality of your forage is to have it analysed. To do this you need a sample that is as representative as possible of the batch of hay or haylage you have. The best way to do this is to take several small samples across a number of bales and mix them up. Then you can send a sub-sample of this off directly to the laboratory or to one of the feed companies that offer this service.

Author: Features Editor

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