Better Horse Hay for your Buck Back »

Buying Hay
You may not be spending a lot of time evaluating hay resources in February, but maybe you should.  Depending on your particular situation, you may need to consider purchasing additional hay to get you through the winter months, or you may be in a position to sell hay or feed it through other animals to get the best bang for your buck.  In a perfect world, everyone would have the exact amount of hay that they needed and wouldn’t have to worry about what to do if they are running low or have excess, but that just isn’t the real world.  If you are in a position that you need to purchase additional hay, you are well aware that it can be very costly at this time of year, which makes it even more critical that you focus on buying the best hay for your buck.

Many times when you look for hay to purchase, you see advertisements selling “horse hay’” but what does this mean exactly?  Is it grass hay that was harvested early in the growing season that has a higher nutritive value?  Is it an alfalfa/grass hay mix that will provide a good balance of energy and protein?  Is the label just there to try to sucker someone into buying their hay?  Until you know more about the hay, you will not be able to make a fair assessment as to whether or not it will meet your needs.  The goal is to purchase hay that meets the nutritional needs of the horse while being cost effective.  Various factors need to be considered, including hay type, quality, bale size, storage methods, and finally “weed-free” hay.

Grass, Alfalfa, or Both?
The first step in the process of buying better hay for your buck is to determine what type of hay is required to meet the needs of your horse.  A short description of the hay may give you some idea of what you are buying, but it doesn’t always paint the whole picture.  The most common types of hay are grass, alfalfa, grass/alfalfa mix, and small cereal grain hays.  The term “grass hay” can refer to anything from crested wheatgrass harvested after heading to early vegetative timothy grass hay. Timothy hay is generally considered good horse hay, but there are other factors besides the type of hay that play into how good the hay is for the horse.  Alfalfa hay can be quite high in protein.  While quality protein is important in a horse diet, some feeds actually provide more protein than is required.  Since a horse will have to drink substantially more water to help flush out the excess nitrogen from protein, and because feeds that are high in protein are generally more expensive, it is best to find a feed that most closely matches your horse’s nutritional demands without substantially exceeding them.  A grass/alfalfa mix can often be a good combination, but there are varying levels of quality.  Small grain hays are a possibility, but they can provide their own challenges, depending on how much grain is available in the hay; too much grain in a horse’s diet can cause serious digestive problems.  You, as a horse owner, need to weigh the cost and benefit of each type of hay to determine your specific needs.

Forage Quality
Once you have determined the type of hay you want to use, the next step is to determine the quality of the different hays you are considering purchasing.  Hay quality can vary tremendously depending on the type of grasses or forages in the hay; for example, hays with alfalfa will be higher in protein than those without.  As hay matures, the forage quality also decreases dramatically, providing less nutritive value for the horse.  Simply looking at hay isn’t enough either—in order to know what nutritive value the hay has, it must be tested.  It is easy to take samples and have the feed analysis done.  There are numerous laboratories that you can send samples to and get results for around $20 (, so it will easily pay for itself if you purchase quality feed or avoid purchasing less than adequate feed.  Always remember that just because it is green and looks good, doesn’t mean it is nutritionally adequate hay.  Hay that was put up at the optimal time, but has weathered for a year may have a higher nutrient quality than fresh green hay that was not put up properly or has been exposed to adverse weather conditions. 

There are a few important components to consider when determining the best hay for the horse.  First you want to evaluate maturity of the hay.  As hay is allowed to mature, the nutritive value decreases, so it is imperative to determine how the hay was put up and if it is at the most ideal maturity for horses.  Secondly look at protein and determine if it is adequate, or if there is too much, both situations can cause problems.  Also consider the calcium to phosphorus ratio and whether or not it is in balance.  The ideal calcium to phosphorus ratio (Ca:P) is 2:1.  Mature horses may be able to handle ranges from 1:1 to 6:1 at the extremes, but growing horses should receive closer to the ideal 2:1 in their diets.  Another number that many people look at is Relative Feed Value (RFV); whereas this shows overall feed quality and is based on alfalfa, it is a number that hay sellers developed to give buyers a single number to look at to determine the quality of the hay; however the RFV does not indicate the overall nutritive value to the horse.  Instead, you have to look at each nutrient separately.  

Knowing Your Horses’ Requirements
In order to determine the type of hay you need to purchase, you have to know the requirements of your horse, and the nutritional value of any feed the horse is receiving.  For an 1100# horse with maintenance requirements, which will typically be the case, the diet needs to consist of 8% CP (700 g).  These values are on a dry matter (DM) basis, so refer to that column when reading the analysis sheet.  Adult horses weighing approximately 1000 pounds that are on a maintenance diet should be receiving approximately 15-20 lbs of feed per day on a dry matter basis.  If the hay is 88% dry matter, you would actually give your horse 17-23 pounds of hay to account for the moisture.  If you have horses that are working hard for 1-3 hours per day, they require more energy in their diet.  Their protein requirement stays the same.  Lactating mares have higher nutrient requirements.  They need 12.5% protein for the first 3 months after foaling.  They require approximately 25 lbs of high quality feed (DM).

Energy is another important factor when it comes to meeting a horse’s nutritional requirements.  While energy wont be listed directly on a forage analysis your Extension Equine Specialist, or local equine nutritionist will be able to help you determine how much energy is available in your hay.  At this point, look at the following table and work through the following exercises to evaluate hays based on protein, minerals and relative feed value.


Crude Protein,% (CP) Dry Matter Basis

Calcium% (Ca) Phosphorus, % (P)


2011 Grass 10 0.43 0.21 78*
2011 Alfalfa/Grass 18 1.24 0.242 95*
2011 Oat Hay 8.5 0.18 0.21 82*

*RFV is designed specifically for alfalfa but is generally used as a ball park for all hays

Example 1:
Which hay is most suitable for a yearling colt weighing 600#, requiring 2.5 lbs DM of crude protein per day? Would grain be recommended as a supplement?

2011 alfalfa hay would most closely meet the colt’s protein needs.  A 600# colt consumes about 12 lbs DM of hay per day (2% of body weight DM), and would get about 2.16 lbs of crude protein per day.  Because the Ca:P ratio is 5:1, some additional Phosphorous would be recommended in the form of grain, which could also supply additional protein to meet the recommended 2.5 lbs.

Example 2:
Which hay would you recommend for a 10 yr. old gelding (weighing 1100#) that is occasionally trail rode on weekends,  requiring 1.5# protein DM per day,?

Both grass and oat hay meet or exceed the gelding’s total protein requirements; however, the Ca:P ratio in the oat hay (0.85:1) is below the lowest recommended ratio for horses of 1:1.  In this case, the 2011 grass hay should be chosen for the gelding, unless calcium can be supplemented with the oat hay (e.g. with supplemental alfalfa).

This article written with contributions from Rebecca Bott and Mindy Hubert.

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