By Gwendolyn Donohoe, MSc, PhD Candidate
What makes a hay bale “horse quality”? Is it the protein content? Is it the glycemic index? Is it the type of forages in the bale – alfalfa vs. timothy vs. brome grass? Is it the price?
For those of us in Manitoba, in my opinion, management of moisture in the hay during baling and storing is the number one concern for us horse owners. The rest of the important attributes of horse hay, including all those listed in the above paragraph, are of little relevance IF the management of moisture in the hay making process was poor.
Horses are extremely sensitive to dust and mold, more so than any other livestock species we raise on the prairies. Dusty and moldy hay can cause chronic breathing issues in horses, including heaves and allergies. Even a one-time exposure can cause sensitive horses a lifetime of breathing issues, especially if they are on a hay-only diet year round. It doesn’t matter whether your horse is a competitive athlete, a trail horse or a pet in your backyard, breathing issues can be extremely hard on both the horse and their sympathetic, heart-felt owner.
In most areas of Manitoba, where rubber boots are also know as Manitoba cowboy boots, moisture and humidity can be extremely high and variable during the summer months. Rain and humidity during the haying process can wreak havoc on a hay crop in terms of increasing susceptibility of the hay to mold, bacteria and fungus that can cause “dusty” hay. Once the hay is baled, if not sheltered immediately, rain can further increase these problems. With all the rain, high humidity and spotty thunder showers across Manitoba this summer, chances are it’s going to be a tough year on horse hay.
Management of moisture during the horse hay making process includes timing of cutting, raking, harvest and storage around rain showers and thunder storms. It also includes having the right equipment, such as moisture testers, rakes and bale movers (either man-powered or gas powered), to ensure moisture content is in the correct range before baling and to ensure bales are removed from the field the same day to a shed or stacked and covered as soon as possible.
Once you have found a producer who understands the importance of the moisture management factor for horses, you can then consider the other very important attributes like protein content, glycemic index, and forage species.
The horse hay situation in 2015
Across the prairies, dry spring conditions have caused drought conditions in some parts of the country, including some areas of Manitoba. Combined with the erratic weather during the time period typically when “1st cut” operations in Manitoba take place, we may be finding it difficult to find good quality horse hay in large quantities this year that is also affordable. The drought situation across the prairies may lead some hay producers to ship their hay to other areas of the country where they can receive a higher price for their hay. Horse owners may see an increase in hay prices at home due to this new market opportunity. Pricing will largely depend on the marketing strategy of the hay producer, however, as some producers may find it more valuable in the long-run to keep loyal, local customers rather than mark-up their hay price or ship hay out of province.
As a horse owner, there are few good questions to ask your hay supplier before you purchase hay for your horse(s):
1. What are your management strategies to ensure good quality hay?
2. Has the hay received any rain before or after baling?
3. How was the hay stored?
3. What was the moisture content at the time of baling? How was this tested? A moisture content of 15% or less will ensure that no heating or molding occurs in the bales.
In hay fields with mixed species, like an alfalfa-brome grass stand, it is important to note that some species will dry faster than others following cutting. For example, most legume species (e.g. alfalfa and clovers) will take longer to dry than grass species, as legumes often have thicker stems. Wet spots in the bale from patches of legumes can lead to heating and molding in the months following baling, despite the fact that the majority of the hay tested dry. It is therefore important to ensure that all species are dry before baling and that the producer tests multiple areas of the bale and multiple areas of the field for moisture content.
4. Other good questions will include what is the forage species and timing of cutting? This will give you an idea of the nutrient content of the hay. Forage species and nutrient content are another article topic however...
5. What is the cost per pound of hay and the type of bale? How heavy are the bales? Is transport available?
Comparing hay in $ per pound will give you a much easier price point to compare hay sources, as depending on the weight of the bales, quality of hay, and type of bale, prices can vary considerably when priced as $/bale. As well, the type of bale (i.e. small square, medium square or round) may limit hay sources for some horse owners depending on the type of equipment owned and delivery options available.
It is also a good idea for the hay purchaser to take some hay samples for analysis before purchasing. Again, be sure to get samples from multiple bales and multiple locations within the bale. Hay analyses are relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of purchasing a large quantity of poor quality hay. Labs can test for molds and moisture content, and then you also have knowledge of the nutrient content as well. Your veterinarian and local Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development livestock specialists (MAFRD) are great resources to help you figure out the results of a hay test, to help you formulate rations and to suggest feeding strategies.
If you have already purchased hay that has dust or mold issues, below are listed a few strategies to help reduce negative impacts on your horse. Again, contact your vet or local MAFRD livestock specialist for more helpful ideas and tips:
- Feeding lower quality hay outside can help reduce dust in the barn, especially if ventilation in the barn in the winter is not adequate. Improving barn ventilation and removing other sources of dust, like choosing low-dust bedding, can also improve your horse’s lung health. If barn ventilation is poor, outdoor board can be a good option for horses in good body condition with sensitivities to dusts and molds.
- Spreading hay out on the ground, to reduce the amount of time a horse can bury its nose and head deep into a bale or large flake of hay can significantly reduce dust exposure. If round bales that have been stored outside are fed, ensure the outside layers have been peeled off. Round bales can also be rolled out on the ground.
- Use hay nets, for the same reason as point 2 above, if spreading on the ground is not possible. Hay nets have other benefits including slowing consumption rates.
- If feeding dusty hay in the barn is unavoidable, try soaking hay for 12 hrs before feeding. Note that some nutrients in hay are water-soluble and this may reduce nutrient content of you hay.
- If you have a sensitive horse, it may be worth investing into a hay steamer. Hay can be steamed daily to kill any fungus and bacteria that may irritate your horse’s lungs. These steaming units will continue to become more affordable as technology advances; however, they are highly labour intensive.
- Ensure that your horse can graze whenever possible to obtain its daily feed intake, allowing the lungs and airways to heal and rest as much as possible in the summer before winter hay feeding starts again.