Horses Need Good Hay To Burn

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Using good hay can make all the difference when feeding horses and should be a priority for their owners, says Doug Milligan, sessional instructor at Equine Services at the University of Alberta and former Alberta Agriculture specialist in equine nutrition.

“Horses require energy, protein, minerals and vitamins. Eighty percent of what they consume supplies energy to the horse and is the bulk of what you’re feeding your horse,” Milligan told a recent meeting here, one of a series in northern Alberta on managing horses during dry conditions.

He stressed the need for both quantity and quality of water. Horses need the equivalent of three pounds of water for every pound of food they eat, said Milligan. Dry conditions can result in poor water quality because sloughs and dugouts do not receive enough new water. All of the solids that were in the waterways in the first place remain in the water and reduce its quality. He advised horse owners not to rely on standing water this year.


Milligan advised producers to strive for energy balance in their horses. When energy balance occurs, a horse is getting enough calories so that it is maintaining and is not gaining or losing weight. He said horses should be fed according to energy balance, and when hay is good quality, less is needed.

“My first recommendation is to buy good hay. There’s a real temptation or an excuse to go around and buy hay that’s not so good this year.”

Milligan said a horse’s digestive system is geared to digest long fibres, so they digest better when they have hay in long strands rather than cubes. Horses that are on low-quality feed will consume the feed, but are unable to digest it quickly.

“Their abdomen expands and they get hay bellies, but they reach a stage where they can only eat what they are digesting. The lower the hay quality, the longer it takes for them to digest,” Milligan said. “Good hay is worth more to a horse owner than it is to a cow owner.”

Hay can be appraised using a visual analysis, said Milligan. It should be free of mould, which can appear in two forms. When hay is left in a bale or a stack and gets rained on, it can develop patches of mould on the outside of the bale. The other kind of mould occurs when hay is baled when it is too damp.

“This is one to watch for. It can be beautiful hay when it’s baled, but because it is baled at too-high moisture, it starts to heat and ferment a bit and get dusty after a month or two in the stack. That’s a really dangerous kind of hay,” Milligan said.

That kind of hay can be spotted by taking a flake and dropping it on the ground. If a plume of smoke-like material appears, this hay has mould and there’s nothing you can do to make it safe for horses, said Milligan. The dust from this type of mould gets into the respiratory system of horses and can cause damage to their lungs. This mould will not affect cattle, but is definitely harmful to horses.

Milligan believes the best value hay is second-cut grass/ alfalfa hay. First-cut hay is generally good, as long as it isn’t overly mature, he said. Grasses, such as brome, timothy and fescue are fine to feed horses. “I like alfalfa because alfalfa has more nutrition that grasses, so grass in combination with alfalfa is good.”

Alfalfa cubes and green feed should be used with caution. If green feed is used, it should be soft and pliable and should contain leaves. Milligan advised his audience to use feeders to avoid wastage of the higher-quality leaf material. Research has shown that horses waste more hay when food is placed on the ground rather than in a container. Enough feeders are needed to allow animals at the bottom of the pecking order to access their food.

Milligan is an advocate of winter grazing, as long as horses are able to paw down to the grass. He also advises free access to water in the winter.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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