Have you ever wondered exactly what is in your hay? It’s easy enough with a bag of feed or a supplement to turn the bag or pot over and have a look, but what about hay? Whilst we can all make a visual appraisal of a bale of hay, or open haylage and have a look, this is only providing limited information. A bale of hay can have a sugar content of 20%, but you can’t really tell this just be looking at it. In this article I am going to outline six reasons you should consider getting your hay analysed, and a few points that you might like to consider.
I think every horse owner knows the importance of forage, and the need to feed a largely forage based diet. Hay or haylage represents a significant percentage of total intake for our horses, and it can be up to 95% for leisure horses, and should ideally be around 50% for high end performance horses. So creating a diet for your horse WITHOUT knowledge of forage can lead to significant error.
It is also essential on performance yards or studs where a slight nutritional imbalance could have far reaching consequences. We often assume that horse’s know what they need to eat, and will limit their intake accordingly. However this isn’t the case, and for some horses metabolic changes mean that they don’t know when to stop eating, you can read more on this topic here.
Understanding the nutritional makeup of your hay or haylage is also very important when you are feeding a horse with a clinical condition such as laminitis. The forage ration of hay, haylage or grass makes up the greatest source of sugar for our horses, and estimates of non structural carbohydrates can differ widely from one batch of hay to the next. It is recommended that a horse with, or at risk from laminitis should be fed a low starch and sugar diet, but without a working knowledge of the hay this can be difficult to achieve. Many owners with an overweight horse opt to soak the hay ration, but this is more effective if you know the make up of your hay to start with. The effectiveness of hay soaking is dependent on many factors, including grass species, time of baling, how compact the bale is and the age of the forage.
Having a better knowledge of the hay or haulage can help when deciding on and concentrate feeds and supplements, and you may find that some of these are unnecessary. You may discover from the analysis that your forage is unbalanced, or you might find that it is providing more energy than you thought. You can read more about deciding what to feed your horse here.
Getting a batch of forage analyised can help you decide if you wish to purchase more from this supplier, and in fact more hay producers do seem to be getting forage analysis completed to allow owners to understand exactly what they are buying.
For years many owners have relied on making a visual appraisal of forage, and this is a quick and cheap option. Assessing your hay by eye will also help you rule out any unsuitable samples, such as those that are obviously mouldy or dusty, or containing foreign objects. I’m sure we are all making an unconscious check of the hay each time we fill up a haynet, but we probably don’t even realise that we are doing it.
However a manual assessment does not provide a measurable result from which you could base a ration and can sometimes be misleading. It is also rather subjective depending on individual experience and knowledge
Now you might be thinking great, this sounds like a fantastic option but isn’t it very expensive? You can get hay analyzed through commercial feed companies, sent a sample straight to a lab or work together with an independent nutritionist. You can expect to pay around £20 for basic analysis, and up to £60-70 for full mineral , whilst a hygiene analysis (moulds and yeasts), or just water soluble carbohydrate content would be around £25.
Any analysis is only as good as the sample that you take of the forage, and a representative Sample is required. Take 10% of the bales and take some from the middle and each end of the bales. With haylage remember to seal up the holes in the bale, and use it up as soon as possible.
You might need assistance understanding the results and what these mean for your horse. Most analysis will report results on a dry matter basis, ‘as sampled’ (also commonly termed ‘as fed’), but what does this actually mean? Dry Matter (DM) is the amount left when all the moisture is removed and hay is typically 80% DM whilst haylage would be closer to 60% DM as it has a higher moisture content. This means that the DM results will appear higher than those shown on an ‘as sampled/fed’ basis as the moisture essentially DILUTES the nutrients. This can take a few minutes to get your head around, and you can work with a nutritionist to help you understand the results and forage analysis is also covered on our Equine Nutrition Course. If you would like more details on the programme just click here, it covers everything from the digestive system, forage, nutrients our horses need to feeding clinical cases and starts from £15.45 per month for lifetime access.
Forage analysis needn’t cost the earth, and you can split the cost with some friends at the yard. Just make sure you have a large enough batch (at least 3 months) to make it worthwhile. You might also enjoy this article about ways to slow your horse down and increase their chew time.