Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Good Horse Hay Looks Like

It's probably the wrong season to talk about this.

Or maybe not-- there are certainly folks out there who can't get enough hay to last all winter just because they don't have the storage space. There are others who can't afford to buy it all at one time, or picked up another horse and find themselves a hundred bales short.

In any case, here's a brief lesson on hay, and my two cents on what good horse hay should look like!

First of all, you should know that growing hay is a pain in the ass.
  • You can't harvest it the first year you plant it; you have to wait for the second year. This means a farmer gets no income, only expenses, from a new hayfield.
  • It has to be cut, left to dry for 1-3 days, then raked into rows, baled and then stored. If it gets rained on during any of this process, there's an increased chance the hay will get moldy-- to the point that it's worth much less. (This is why you see ads that boast that their hay has "no rain.") 
    • "Make hay while the sun shines" is an idiom meaning you should take advantage of an opportunity while you can. It was developed by farmers as a more polite way of saying, "get your ass in gear and pray that it doesn't fucking rain tomorrow, or we're screwed."
  • Every bale of hay has to be stacked by hand. When it comes off the field, the machine throws it into a hay wagon, but once off the wagon, it has to be stacked in storage. "Small square bales" (actually rectangles) weigh 10-30 pounds each, depending on the type of hay and moisture content. "Large square" bales weigh 45-110 pounds. "Round bales" weigh 800-1500 lbs and require machinery to lift. You're talking heavy labor here, no matter what size you're dealing with.
  • There's a certain window where you need to cut a crop of hay; not doing it at the right time can mean damaging the field, poor nutrients in the hay, moldy hay or wet, hard-to-handle hay.
  • Hay is cut, baled and stored during the most god-awfully hot weather; July, August and early September. Have you ever stacked hundreds of bales of hay in the loft of a super hot barn in July, with chaff in your nose and underwear and butt crack? Do you know what hay rash feels like? No? Stop complaining about your desk job. Farmers are heroes.

Farmers also tend to have nice butts.

"Cow Hay" vs "Horse Hay": "Cow" hay usually means first-crop alfalfa hay (being the first of 3-4 crops of hay cut from a field each year). It is more coarse than any other crop and more rich. It's generally not fed to horses because its richness and coarseness can contribute to the likelihood a horse will colic, and because rich hay can also cause founder/laminitis. However, it is not terribly unsafe, provided it's fed carefully, in smaller amounts. 

Note: some people also call old, moldy or dusty hay "cow hay," being not good enough for horse hay, but fed to cows on the basis that it provides rough forage and some little nutritional benefit as a supplement to a regular diet of silage.

There are a lot of different kinds of hay besides alfalfa, and each type is suited for a different environment. "Good hay" on the west coast is very different from "good hay" here in Wisconsin. Some hay is "grass hay" or "grass mix" hay-- and that can mean anything from deliberately planted grasses to "my alfalfa field has gotten pretty weedy and overgrown."

This is the excellent grass-alfalfa hay I get from my cousin down the road. It's truly beautiful stuff:

Grassy, but with some alfalfa leaves. Not too green (prevents mold) but not dessicated. $2.50 per small square. I love WI.

Hay/Alfalfa Cubes: Hay cubes are an excellent substitute for actual hay. The only differences between cubes and actual hay are that the horse's body processes cubes faster (and horses eat them faster), and that hay cubes are certainly drier. If you have a horse with a sensitive stomach, feeding fewer meals of cubes more frequently will prevent colic associated with long periods between roughage, and soaking them in water will prevent colic associated with lack of water content.  They're less dusty, easier to carry and store, and usually more consistent in quality than hay.

Judging Hay:

Too rich or wet:     Large-stemmed, very bendable, full of alfalfa leaves and brighter green. Smells strongly like fresh-cut grass.

Too old or moldy: Yellowish or brownish, snaps easily, raises a cloud of dust when you drop it or has white or black spots in the middle of the bale. Few leaves left, very stemmy or coarse.

Ideal:      Sage green, slightly pliable and grassy with some alfalfa leaves. Smells a little like grass, not too strongly.

You can go to many county fairs and check out the hay judging competitions to get a good idea of what "good hay" looks like. Be careful, however; many hay judging competitions are for cow hay.

1 comment:

  1. Until I started reading stuff on the Internet, I knew "zilch" about hay, really. It was grassy, green stuff that made me sneeze and horses liked to eat. (Don't worry, I've never had my own horse so wasn't off killing any equines with garbagey hay) Now I'm a lot more educated, but I wish I'd paid more attention to the hay judging at the Ohio State Fair back when I attended every year!