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Topics : Pastures : Pasture and Hay for Horses

Pasture and Hay for Horses

Download the Pasture and Hay for Horses document in Adobe PDF format.

Additional pasture information via the Forage Information System (FIS)


Hay for Horses

High quality hay can provide most of the nutrients needed for a mature horse. High quality hay is cut early and is leafy, green in color, and is free of must, mold, dust, and foreign material such as weeds and stubble. This type of hay is usually rich in energy, protein, minerals and vitamins, and is readily consumed by horses.

In the past, there has been a belief that horses should not be fed a legume hay because it would cause digestive disorders. Grass hay, especially timothy has been the preferred hay. However, research has dispelled the notion that legumes do not make good hay for horses.

Straight legume hay or legume-grass mixed hay are highly acceptable when they are cut early, leafy and free of molds or other dusts. Respiratory or digestive disturbances frequently associated with feeding hay are more related to dust and mold than to mixtures. In general, well managed legume-grass hays are higher in protein and minerals than straight grasses under similar management. However, protein and mineral levels are readily changed by time of cutting and other hay-making practices. With good management most hay species or mixtures can be satisfactory for horses. Alfalfa hay, while normally high in protein, may contain an excessive amount of calcium in relationship to phosphorus (wide Ca:P ratio) when fed as the sole source of forage to young, growing horses.

To be sure of the nutritive quality of the hay which is being fed, have it analyzed. For more information on testing the quality of forages check with your local county agricultural extension agent.

Hay Production Tips

If you plan to buy hay for your horse, then consider the factors discussed above. However, if you plan to grow and harvest your own hay, follow the steps listed below. They will help you to consistently produce high yields of high quality hay.

Choose adapted species, varieties and mixtures. In general, simple mixtures consisting of a single legume such as alfalfa and a single grass such as timothy are preferred over straight legume or straight grass seedings. The Penn State Agronomy Guide is an excellent source of information on species and mixture selection. It is available through your county extension office.

  1. Fertilize annually. A complete soil test provides the best guide for proper fertilization. Where soil test information is not available, topdress legume-grass stands annually with a minimum of 50 pounds of phosphate and 150 lbs. of potash (example 500 pounds of 0-10-30 or equivalent) per acre. If your hay field contains less than a 30% stand of legumes you can increase yield by applying 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre in late winter or early spring.
  2. Harvest on time. To assure high quality feed, and at the same time keep stands productive and persistent, harvest hay crops at the proper maturity stages.
  3. Plan hay making operations to save leaves. The plant leaves are higher in digestibility and feed value, including protein and minerals than any other plant parts. Hay that has been cut early and conditioned will normally contain more leaves and dry much faster than non- conditioned hay. It also tends to be softer and more readily accepted by animals. Other field operations such as raking should be carried out at high enough moisture levels to minimize leaf loss.
  4. Dry and store to prevent dusts and molds. As indicated previously, dusty and moldy hay is unacceptable for horses. Conventional field dried hay must be 20 percent moisture or less for safe storage. Of all perennial species grown for hay in Pennsylvania, red clover is one of the most difficult to field cure.

Today a number of chemical preservatives are being marketed which if properly applied at the time of baling make it possible to bale and store hay safely at moistures up to 25 percent. Research indicates that hay treated with most chemical preservatives is safe to feed to horses as long as no dust or mold is present.