Regularly asked questions concerning feeding forage

I spend a lot of time in conversation with customers on the phone, learning much about their horses whilst answering any queries.  The following questions are ones that crop up regularly but if you have others not answered here or have any else you would like to discuss, do get in touch on 01404 813100 or claire@devonhaylage.co.uk

I’ve heard you should feed hay or haylage all year round – why is this?

Some horses tend to over eat hay or haylage when it is offered and not self-regulate.  This is a concern for the owners of overweight horses or those prone to gain weight easily.  The problem is most evident when horses are suddenly supplemented with forage in the winter months when grass quality and quantity declines or they start to be stabled.  By offering hay or haylage all year round, the horse will not see forage as a novelty when it is presented and will be more inclined to self-regulate, thus maintaining a healthy weight.

Why should I offer hay or haylage 24 hours a day?

Firstly, horses should never be without a fibre source for more than about 2 hours.  Their digestive tract is designed to process a trickle of food on an almost constant basis.  Going without, for a long period of time can cause the ‘stress response’ to kick in where a cascade of hormones warns the body there may be a famine and so to hold onto any available fat.  Secondly, when horses are stabled for part of the day and only offered hay or haylage when brought in, they may tend to overeat or eat what is offered very fast.  In their mind, they don’t know when the next available ‘meal’ will come along; they don’t have the mental capacity to tell themselves to save some for later and so they’ll gorge on what is available.  If forage is also offered when out in the field, having hay or haylage once stabled is not a novelty and so the horse will be more likely to self-regulate the amount eaten and the time it takes to eat it!  The key is to ensure enough forage is offered so the horse can trickle feed for the duration of time in the stable and they don’t run out too soon.  True ‘free choice’ forage feeding may take a while to accomplish, but along with adequate movement, the benefits are huge.

Why should forage be nutritionally tested?

After grass, hay or haylage makes up the second largest proportion of your horse’s diet, offering significant amounts of fibre, carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals.  It is also much cheaper kg for kg than any bagged feed.  It therefore makes sense to pay close attention to and understand what your forage is contributing to your horse’s diet in terms of nutrition so that you can supplement (give extra energy, protein or minerals) where necessary.  It may be that your brood mare needs more true protein than offered by your forage or that your hay contains too much sugar for your Shetland, or that the energy levels in your haylage are too low for your performance horse.  Comprehensive nutritional testing will also illustrate the minerals, and more importantly the mineral ratios found in your forage, assisting you to target specific health issues with extra supplementation should your forage fall short in a specific area.  At Devon Haylage, we can provide all this information for our four types of haylage.  Recently this information has helped a customer choose the most appropriate of our haylages to feed, in order to balance the high levels of potassium present in her grazing.  Another customer needed to know the ‘true protein’ quality of our haylage (using the nitrogen to sulphur ratio we provide) as her horse had a liver condition.

Should you always feed a balancer?

Unless formulating a bespoke feeding plan using mineral straights based around the deficiencies of forage, balancers should be offered for all horses on a mainly forage based diet.  This is because UK grassland will naturally be deficient in some minerals whilst abundant in others.  Try to use a balancer formulated to specifically target the nutritional deficiencies of forage, as this will help to ensure your horse receives the correct ‘ratio’ of minerals which is very important for overall health.  UK grassland is generally naturally abundant in Iron and so the best balancers take this into account with formulas containing low levels of iron, which acts as an antagonist to block the uptake of other beneficial minerals.  Some bagged fibre feeds now contain an added balancer so check labels well.

What is the best way to feed hay or haylage?

Anatomically, it is better for a horse to eat for most of the time with a lowered head.  This not only aligns the jaw properly and uses the correct muscles but also prevents small particles from dropping into the eyes or nostrils.  So, feed from the ground if possible or if using nets position them so that the horse must drop his head to eat.  For about 20 minutes a day it is a good idea to allow your horse to stretch to reach a net placed above wither height.  This mimics the natural foraging stances helping to excersise the thoratic sling by lifting from the base of the neck.  To avoid waste in the field, use something like a wooden crate, large tractor tyre or a commercially made agricultural feeder.  Ensure any commercially available feeders are of the ‘tombstone’ design to avoid damage to the top of the neck and poll area should the horse suddenly raise its head when feeding.

Why did my horse develop loose droppings when moving over to haylage?

The equine gut contains a sensitive mix of multiple strains of billions of bacteria, vital for the efficient digestion of fibre.  When there is a sudden change to the diet these bacteria can have a little shock, upsetting the delicate balance and can cause loose droppings.  Always introduce a new food stuff gradually.  There is also a chance that the haylage fed was too damp and/or cut too early resulting in a rich acidic forage which could upset the gut.  Always make sure the haylage you buy is from a reputable supplier who understands the quality requirements for horse haylage and that you ask to see the annual analysis before buying as this can tell you a lot about the haylage under that plastic.  You want the dry matter to be around 70% and see visible seed heads.  Furthermore, some horses could be intolerant to some grasses.  Ryegrass intolerance is most common and so I advise customers to try our Native Mix or pure Timothy haylage instead.

My horse needs a low sugar diet.  Is soaking hay enough to remove sugars?

It is imperative to know the sugar level of your hay before you start.  It is impossible to tell just by looking at hay what the sugar level may be.  Even very old tough hay could have high levels whilst fresher, sweeter smelling hay may be OK; it all depends on the growing conditions and species of grass, so nutritional testing is vital when feeding hay to sugar sensitive horses.  Depending on the sugar levels at the start, soaking alone may not be enough.  Sometimes a washing machine action is required to force enough sugar from the fibres.  A safer and easier option is to feed a low sugar haylage such as our Devon Haylage Timothy.  The 2018 batch has just 5.6% ESC (simple sugar) as fed.

Why is haylage better for laminitics?

When cut grass is wrapped in an anaerobic environment, the naturally present lactic acid bacteria on the grass stems utilise the sugar within the grass as an energy source as they replicate, breaking it down into volatile fatty acids. This reduces the amount of sugar within the haylage making it a much safer option for sugar sensitive horses such a laminitics and those with EMS or IR.  Hay doesn’t go through this process and so can still contain high levels of residual sugar. Timothy grass naturally contains less sugar than other grasses such as Ryegrass and so haylage made from Timothy is a particularly good option for such horses.  Our High Fibre Ryegrass haylage however, due to the efficient fermentation that takes place is still safe to feed to laminitics at just 6.1% combined sugar and starch as fed.  Ryegrass hay however, should be avoided for any sugar sensitive horse.

What type of forage is best for a horse requiring a high protein diet?

Again, only a thorough nutritional analysis can tell you if a forage contains the required protein for a performance horse, growing youngster or brood mare.  It is important however, to look at the protein quality rather than just the crude protein level, as the crude protein contains both true protein and non-protein nitrogen.  A protein level of around 8% is adequate for the average horse but this must be regarded along with the nitrogen to sulphur ratio to tell us about the quality of that protein.   Generally, grass cut early in the season with contain more protein along with higher energy levels and lower fibre than grass cut from June onwards.  It is not only the protein level to consider for a performance horse, because if they won’t eat much of the forage, they won’t get much benefit from it!  So, choose a tasty, palatable forage which will encourage consumption, like our High Fibre Ryegrass.  This has 9.6% crude protein (dry matter basis) with a perfect nitrogen to sulphur ratio indicating that there is very little non-protein nitrogen present, perfect for horses requiring quality protein in the diet.

My elderly horse can’t chew tough hay – what can I do?

Apart from feeding a complete forage replacer in the form of soaked nuts or chaffs, some haylage may be soft enough for those with poor dentition to cope with.  Our Native Grass & Herb Mix haylage is made from fine grasses; being soft and palatable it’s proving to be very popular with elderly equines.  Because haylage goes through a mild fermentation, it is slightly easier to digest than hay and so for elderly horses who need a little extra help to maintain condition, a soft haylage which is easy to chew may help. 

Feeding haylage can make horses ‘fizzy’, is this correct?

Haylage contains slow release energy rather than fast release energy provided by grains for example.  Slow release feeds alone cannot make horses fizzy, but my advice, should you witness a behaviour change after starting on haylage, is to look at the overall diet and assess what other energy sources are present, along with the activity levels of your horse.  Remember, when turned out, a horse will be moving an awful lot more than one that is stabled.  Often, it comes to light that the horse is also receiving a bucket feed high in energy, and spends much time stabled.  Adding another energy source into the diet simply adds to the already quite high energy levels resulting in hotter behaviour.  Many horses (unless in hard work or underweight), when fed adequate hay or haylage won’t require a bucket feed other than to hide a balancer or medications in.