Forage, the Long and the Short of it!

Forage – the long and the short of it!

Forage, whether fresh or conserved grass, should be the basis of any horse’s diet and is potentially an abundant source of nutrients.  The common perception may be that conserved forage eg. hay or haylage, is fed simply to provide bulk when horses do not have access to grass.  As a nutrient source, though, it can play an important part in your horse’s diet, so taking time to pick the right forage will be well worth the effort, and help you decide what additional feed your horse may require.

A balancing act

When making a horse feed, nutritionists have to take into consideration how many nutrients the forage is contributing to the diet.  Unlike dog food, where the food will be more or less the sole source of nutrition, the concentrates we give our horses may make up less than 25% of the diet.  To ensure that the overall diet is balanced, it is necessary for nutritionists to prepare a feed that complements the nutrients provided by the forage so, if your forage is particularly low in nutrients, it may mean that even the recommended quantities of a compound feed will not provide a balanced diet.

Make hay when the sun shines

The crucial factor that determines the nutritional value of conserved forage is the stage at which it is cut.  The more mature the plants are when they’re cut within a particular season, the lower the nutrient levels they are likely to contain.  As grass plants grow taller they need a stronger stem to support them otherwise they would get blown over by the wind.  To improve their strength the stem becomes more lignified and, as lignin is basically indigestible, the nutrients are effectively trapped and inaccessible to the horse. 
The later the hay is cut in the season, the more mature the plants will be.  Unfortunately, the British climate often dictates that hay has to be cut late to get a long enough period of time for it to dry.  Ironically, if it was cut earlier and got wet and went mouldy, it would probably still have a higher nutrient value than a clean hay that was harvested later.  It is quite clearly advisable to sacrifice the nutrient levels rather than ending up with a mouldy hay, however, don’t be too disappointed if you have your hay analysed and it isn’t as good as you thought it might be.  Just because it is clean and dust free doesn’t mean to say that it will contain lots of nutrients.
Although good fertilising can make an impact on certain nutrient levels within a forage, there are other factors that need to be considered.  Certain areas of the country, for example, are selenium deficient, and if you make your own forage from the same area that your horse grazes, you are effectively compounding the problem.  In this situation it is advisable to sell the hay you make and buy in some for your own horses from a different area that isn’t deficient of the same mineral.
Analysing your forage is recommended, particularly if you have breeding stock or competition horses where a shortfall of a mineral can significantly affect health and performance.  Most horse feed manufacturers offer an analysis service but, if you don’t have time to have it analysed, the following tips may be of use in trying to determine how good a forage is:


  • Find out when the forage was harvested – May and June forages are likely to have a higher nutritional value than those taken in late July or August (assuming they’re first cuts)
  • Squeeze the hay in your hand – if it is coarse and causes indentations then it is likely to have a lower nutritional value and is more suitable for good-doers.  Soft leafy hays are better for poorer doers.
  • Forages that have a strong green colour contain more vitamins– these will decline as the hay gets older though.

To soak or not to soak?

This is the question most frequently asked with regard to hay.  There are very few hays that are clean enough not to require soaking so, in most cases, soaking is advisable.  How long to soak for is usually the next question that follows.  About 20 minutes is the time where the balance between nutrient losses and the reduction of dust are optimum.  For horses whose calorie intake needs controlling, it is suggested that soaking hay for as long as 12 hours will help leach out many of the calories, leaving just the fibre element.

What about Haylage?

When preserving grass, it is necessary to remove either the moisture (to make hay) or the air (to make haylage) as these are the components that result in moulding and deterioration.  To reduce the risk of hay going mouldy the moisture content needs to be reduced to about 16% or less.  This can take 3 to 4 days drying time and as dry spells are a rarity in this country the popularity of haylage has increased because a lot more moisture is left in so less drying time is required.   When making haylage it is the air that is removed by wrapping it in plastic.  If the wrapping is punctured, air can get in which usually results in moulding and it is then advisable not to feed it.
The moisture content of haylage is usually between 30 and 60% with a value of about 40% moisture being ideal.  Haylages that contain a lot of moisture are more likely to result in loose droppings as the horse doesn’t absorb all of the water.  A high moisture content also means that the nutrients, particularly fibre, are more diluted so the horse has to eat more, NOT less as is often suggested.  Limiting the amount of haylage a horse is given is more likely to result in digestive upsets and behavioural problems due to boredom.
Haylage has the big advantage of being much better for the respiratory system than hay as it usually has a much lower dust content.  For this reason haylage should be the forage used for performance horses where the health of the lungs is crucial to performance.
Can I use haylage for my good doer?

Haylage tends to be more digestible than hay so horses and ponies tend to do better on it.  Rather than decreasing the amount of haylage to stop them putting on too much weight, it is preferable to change the concentrate ration to one that contains less energy (calories).  There are plenty of low calorie feeds available, like Lo-Cal balancer, that will provide essential nutrients without additional calories.
For really good doers using haylage can be tricky as it provides just too many calories, even if fed alongside a low calorie concentrate diet.  In these cases it may be better to use hay.  If you can’t because your horse suffers with COPD, then it is advisable to feed small amounts of haylage at frequent intervals so that the horse is not left for long periods of time without any forage. 
Keep your horse chewing

Horses have evolved to spend much of their time grazing so have a natural desire to chew.  Feeding plenty of forage helps satisfy this so feeding hay or haylage ad lib is particularly desirable for the stabled horse.  Where intake needs to be limited, say for the good doer, you can make what you do feed last longer by using hay nets with small holes.  In addition you can also put one net inside another and hang several nets around the stable.
Research has shown that horses prefer to have a selection of forages to choose from and also that it takes as long for a horse to chew short chop fibre as hay or haylage.  For stable, yard or barn-bound horses consider buckets of Alfalfa Blend, Alfalfa Plus Oil, Light Chaff and/or Ultra Grass, according to their calorie requirements.  Fibre Plus Nuggets and High Fibre Complete Nuggets are also great for feeding loose on the ground to encourage natural foraging behaviour.