By Jyme Nichols, Director of Nutrition, Bluebonnet Feeds and Stride Animal Health

Critical areas of hay production have struggled to get good growth over the last few years due to consistent droughts. Like many regions this year, dry months followed by extreme wet seasons are making it even more difficult for producers. Even those who managed to get good growth have a hard time getting high quality dry cuts from their fields. The negative impacts of cutting following heavy rains go beyond stuck equipment. Damage to the ground from tires in mud will hurt the next stands, and we all know the risks of wet hay sitting around.

Still, your horses need to meet their nutritional needs, which includes eating around 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight each day. So, how should you manage hay shortages?

1) Cut your waste

Take more measures to get the most out of your hay supply.

  • Consider using hay nets or slow feeders for every feeding to decrease your horses’ waste while eating. Research at the University of Minnesota* found horses wasted significantly less hay when a slow feeder net is used. Up to 7 percent of hay was lost when feeding small square bales indoors vs 1 percent with a feeder, and up to 13 percent loss outdoors.
  • Pay extra attention to how you store your hay. Store it off the ground, on a pallet or another lifted and clean, dry surface. Keep your hay indoors, if you can. Otherwise, we recommend covering it completely, with a tarp.

2) Account for your hay quality

High quality hay will be richer in nutrients and more calorie-dense. In other words, you’ll need less of it, which can be important during a shortage.

Hay quality is determined by the stage of maturity at the time it was cut. As grasses and legumes continue to grow and mature, the amount of valuable nutrients such as protein and energy decrease. So, mature-cut hay is less digestible than immature-cut hay.

In periods of heavy rainfall, harvesting will be delayed, likely decreasing the quality of hay with each day.

We generally recommend you buy three months of hay at a time. This way, your horse is more likely to be consuming hay from similar cuts and fields and has as much consistency as possible.

Once you have selected your hay, send it out for analysis to better understand its nutritional value.

3) Explore alternative forage options

If you feel your access to hay is going to decrease, there are a couple of resources you can explore:

  • Evaluate your ability to increase grazing time. Additionally, consider if there’s more you can do to increase growth through pasture maintenance techniques and rotation schedules.
  • Consider incorporating hay cubes into your feed program. When long-stem forage is not available, a great alternative is the use of quality hay cubes. Adult horses with good dental condition can safely consume 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight in cubes every day—for an 1,100-pound horse, that equates to 22 pounds of cubes per day.

Keep in mind that no forage, no matter what time it was cut, will provide adequate levels of trace minerals for a horse, especially a growing or performance horse. Horses on a ‘hay-only’ diet should be offered a vitamin and trace mineral package such as 101 Diet Balancer by Stride Animal Health.

If you start feeding considerably lower quality hay than normal, you may need to consider a higher protein grain source or supplement.

4) Consider supplementing with a complete feed

Complete feeds are a good place to start to fill nutritional gaps, as they should contain all the nutrients that a horse needs to survive, from vitamins and minerals to protein and fiber.

Here are some tips for choosing a complete feed:

  1. Look for a feed advertised as a complete feed by a reputable manufacturer
  2. Check the guaranteed analysis on the feed tag for a higher crude fiber level
  3. Check the ingredients for early listings of fiber, such as: dehydrated alfalfa meal, soybean hulls, beet pulp, rice hulls, wheat middlings, rice bran

If you choose not to switch to a complete feed but still need to make up the calorie difference, supplementing with high-fiber products like beet pulp may be a good alternative.

5) Make careful switches and support your horses’ digestion

A horse’s digestive system is incredibly sensitive to change. This includes concentrates like grain and supplements, as well as hay and forage.

The first precaution to take if you need to adapt to what’s currently available is to transition slowly. Safely introducing new grain can take a couple weeks, and the digestive tract may take as long as 28 days to fully adjust to new hay and forage. So, if you keep three months of hay on-hand at all times, make sure to plan about a month of overlap to transition between loads.

Another consideration during times of nutritional uncertainty would be proactive supplementation to support digestive health, such as a gastric buffer. A product like GASTRO pHix from Stride Animal Health can help balance the pH of the stomach while helping soothe and support normal health of tissues along the entire digestive tract. Another option would be pre- and probiotics to support good bacteria in the gut.

As always, constant access to water is essential.

Should you be forced to make a hasty change, it is wise to lay low for a couple weeks and decrease stress factors (i.e. intense exercise, travel or heat stress) until your horse has had time to fully transition and adjust to the new diet.

Read the full post, with product recommendations, on BluebonnetFeeds.com.


Want support deciding what’s most helpful for your horse?

Visit the Bluebonnet Feeds website to sign up for a free nutrition consult, and to learn about our feed products.

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