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Hay or haylage – what is the best option for your horse?

Good quality forage is the most essential part of every horse or pony’s diet. Angela Calvert looks at the options.


As the great British climate becomes more changeable, making good quality forage has never been more challenging and this season has been no exception.


A very dry spring followed by variable weather throughout the country over summer, means most farmers are reporting reduced yields.

Rain, which came to some areas later in the season, has been a mixed blessing, helping to boost second cuts for many producers, but also making harvesting crops difficult.

Catchy season

However, Rowley Fenwick, president of the British Hay and Straw Merchants Association, sees no reason to panic. “There seems to be plenty of haylage, but there won’t be a lot of better quality hay about. It has been a very catchy season and some regions getting hardly any rain are, therefore, making very little hay,” he says.


“Haylage seems to be plentiful, but I would warn horse owners to check the quality of what they are buying and only buy from a reliable source. Cost of production has gone up, but even so I think we are unlikely to see the very high prices we saw last year.


“The straw crop seems to have been very light with a lot of straw still waiting to be baled, so it is really too soon to tell, but I am not anticipating major shortages. I am sure there will be enough to go round.”


Traditionally, hay has been the supplementary forage fed to horses, but with more and more farmers producing haylage it has become more readily available. However, they are two very different products, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.


Whichever you chose it is important it is good quality. Paying a little more for a good product will be more cost effective than buying inferior feed, which can actually do your horse more harm than good, or may end up being wasted.


The nutrient value of hay and haylage depends on the grass species used, the time of year it is cut and the environment conditions at the time, but generally the nutrient value of haylage is higher.


Forage is a horse’s natural feed and should be the basis of its diet, with extra feed added only if forage cannot supply sufficient nutrients.


A hard working horse is likely to require some concentrate feed in addition to forage, but for horses and ponies with low nutrient requirement, who are good doers and in light or no work, forage should supply all the energy and protein they need.


However, even the best quality forage may not supply all the vitamins and minerals a horse needs and horses on a forage-only diet should be fed a balanced source of vitamins and minerals.


Forage can vary significantly in nutrient value and the only sure way to know exactly what you are feeding is to have your forage analysed. Many producers now offer a nutrient analysis or you can have this done yourself.


Protein, fibre and energy analysis is relatively cheap, but vitamin and mineral analysis is more expensive. If in doubt, use a broad spectrum or forage balancing supplement alongside your forage.


The obvious difference is haylage is wrapped in plastic and hay is not. Grass for haylage is usually cut later than for silage, but several weeks sooner than for hay. Therefore, grass used for haylage tends to be younger and so is more digestible to horses and they tend to do better on it, so this must be taken into consideration when feeding it. They usually find it more palatable and will consume more than hay if fed ad-lib.


Mown grass for haylage is tedded and raked in a similar way to hay, but is baled and then wrapped a day or two earlier. Good hay will have been dried relatively quickly, ideally to about 14 per cent moisture. Hay which has been rained on will have had some of the nutrients washed out, but more importantly may have been baled with too high a moisture content, leading to the growth of mould and fungi.


When you cut the strings on a good bale of hay it should ‘spring’ apart, be a greenish colour and smell sweet. If dried for longer it may be more yellow in colour and have less nutritional value, which may be more suitable for good doers and ponies. Hay which is dark in colour and has an ‘off’ smell should be discarded.


All hay contains some dust and mould spores and its low moisture content means these become airborne and are a health risk to horses, particularly if stabled, and can cause respiratory problems.


As haylage is dried for a shorter period than hay it contains more moisture, often between 40 and 50 per cent. Sealing it in plastic excludes the air and the fermentation process then preserves it. Well made haylage contains very few, if any, mould spores, and because of its higher moisture content any which are present do not become airborne and, therefore, do not cause problems.


Although haylage is often more expensive than hay it can be better value as concentrate feed can often be reduced because haylage is more nutritious.


The quality of the haylage will be reduced if the wrapping has been punctured at any time allowing air in and mould to develop. Bales should be tightly wrapped with at least six layers of plastic.


Hay will remain in good condition for a long period of time if stored correctly, but haylage will start to deteriorate once opened and should be used within a few days, meaning it is not always practical for one or two horse owners.


How much to feed

To maintain your horse’s appropriate fibre intake you will need to feed a larger weight of haylage because it contains more moisture. For example, a typical 500g 16hh riding horse requires a minimum daily roughage intake of about 1 per cent of its bodyweight ie, 5kg of hay or, due to its higher moisture content, 7-8.5kg of haylage. Although you need more haylage by weight, you will need less by volume, as again, due to its higher moisture content, haylage is denser than hay. If you have only just started feeding haylage, it may be a good idea to weigh it out initially until you get used to judging the correct amount.

Haylage facts

  • Dust free - healthier than hay
  • Can be stored outside
  • Has a higher nutritional value, but not suitable for all horses/ponies
  • Can be more cost effective as it can reduce concentrated feed use.
  • Can be difficult to move around
  • Is more palatable than hay
  • Must be used quickly once opened - not practical for everyone
  • Is a more natural feed than hay and more digestible

Autumn watch

Spring and summer are not the only times when laminitis can strike. Autumn is notorious for the onset of the problem, even in horses and ponies with no previous history, particularly if there is a late flush of grass - so take care.

  • Don’t turn out in frosty conditions as changes in the grass caused by the cold can induce laminitis
  • Monitor your horse’s weight - learn to condition score or use a weigh tape
  • Increase your horse’s workload. This will not only keep the weight off, but reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance which can lead to laminitis
  • Check your horse’s diet and analyse forage - it is the only way to tell how many calories it is providing. Most feed companies provide this service
  • Pasture management - restrict grazing by grazing paddocks with sheep or other horses or by strip grazing. Use a menage for turn out


Feeding haylage

  • If changing from hay to haylage do so gradually to allow your horse’s digestive system time to adapt
  • Always buy from a reliable source and check all bales for damage
  • Once opened use a bale as quickly as possible, as exposing it to air means there is potential for mould to develop. Do not feed mouldy haylage to horses
  • Sometimes on opening a bale you will see tiny white/cream round ‘colonies’ on the haylage. They have a creamy consistency and are not powdery or fluffy. These are yeasts, not moulds and will not harm horses as they do not produce spores
  • Silage is baled and wrapped sooner after mowing than haylage, when the moisture content is higher. It has a strong smell and is not palatable to horses. If fed it can result in digestive upsets and scouring. Some farmers still refer to all wrapped forage as silage, so the only true way to see what they are offering is to have a look at it
  • Do not feed any haylage which has been contaminated by soil as this can lead to the risk of toxins causing listeriosis and botulism
  • As long as the sealed wrapping remains intact and has not been punctured haylage will remain well preserved and nutritious for a long period of time - it does not need to be used up in the year it was made
  • Ideally, horses should be fed ad-lib forage on the ground to replicate their natural environment, but if it has to be restricted, break it up into as many small feeds as possible. Using a hay net with small holes will slow down eating and make forage last longer
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