Hay vs. Haylage – which forage should you choose?

Horse Nutrition November BR Farm
FORAGE FOUNDATION: Right, Comparison of hay and haylage - haylage has a lower dry matter content and therefore more haylage needs to be fed compared to hay. (FW46-500NN)

THE foundation to any feeding programme is the forage content of the diet, recommended by the National Research Council to be a minimum of 1.5-2% of a horse’s body weight per day. How do we then choose which forage source to use and if this source is suitable for our horse?

This decision is often pre-determined for some owners due to other factors, such as availability, cost and health implications i.e. laminitis. Naturally, each forage source will vary in nutrient composition, sending off hay or haylage for analysis can provide owners with an idea of the nutrient content available. After forage is harvested and stored, the vitamin E level decreases, supplementation to the diet such as Bluegrass Stamm 30 or a fortified feed will help meet these requirements.

Haylage has a lower dry matter content of 50-65% compared to hay, 80-95% (NRC, 2008). This therefore means that more haylage is required to be fed compared to hay, to meet the daily recommended guidelines for dry matter intake. Haylage does however, contain higher crude protein, fat and digestible energy.

When feeding haylage, the fermentation process can begin quickly if the bale is exposed to air, this may be due to damage of the wrapping or not using the bale quickly enough once opened. Mould spores or fungi will develop, this should be carefully assessed before feeding to your horse. Haylage with a high acidic and water content can lead to gastric upset for sensitive horses and in some cases may induce colic.

Some owners choose to feed hay for health-related factors or for the “good doer” struggling to manage weight. The quality of hay is important to consider, as the dry matter content is higher than haylage, the protein and digestible energy is lower. Hay can also contribute to respiratory issues from the dust, mould spores and fibrous plant material, known as the respiratory dust concentration of the hay. If these are high, they can result in airway irritation, not ideal for performance horses or those suffering from respiratory conditions such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

When feeding hay, there are different preparation techniques used to reduce the respiratory dust concentration exposed to your horse.

1) Soaking Hay – Traditionally soaking hay has been used as a standard management practise for dusty hay. A reduction of 92% in respiratory dust was seen after soaking for 10-30 minutes. However, this method has been seen to impact the nutrient content of the hay, making it a favourable option for owners feeding horses with metabolic issues requiring low non-structural carbohydrates and sugars.

2) Wetting Hay – Also been shown to significantly reduce the respiratory dust concentrations, this method does not impair nutrient content of the hay.

3) Steaming Hay – Recently this method is growing in popularity, with studies showing a 99% decrease in respiratory particles and 99% decrease in bacteria and mould. Steaming does not impact the nutrient content and the bi-product, water, does not require specific disposal.

When choosing a forage source suitable for your horse, some factors to think about include:

– Availability of the forage, including the quality available;

– Health related issues such as, metabolic issues and overweight horses;

– Desirable digestible energy (DE).

For further information on choosing the right forage and other feeding advice, contact the Bluegrass Horse Feeds team at info@bluegrasshorsefeed.com

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