Physically Evaluating Horse Hay
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Physically Evaluating Horse Hay

August 30, 2019


Hi, my name is Krishona Martinson. I am an
associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at
the University Minnesota. And this is Amanda Grev and she’s a master student also at the University Minnesota. So
today we’re going to talk about how to physically
evaluate hay. And we’re going to talk about a few of the major
components that we look for when we evaluate hay. The first one is maturity. Maturity is so
important because that is what drives forage
quality. You can see we have some different hays laid out on the table here. Here we have a grass hay and you can
see it is mature because you can physically see the seed heads. So, a hay that has this much seed heads
is a more mature hay. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad hay, it just
means it’s more mature and it should probably be fed to horses
that have a lower caloric requirement. Compared, here’s a grass hay that is much less mature. You can see when you look in this
hay there are no seed heads, so we know that this hay is relatively
immature. This hay would have more energy, more crude protein, less fiber than the more mature hay. When it comes
to alfalfa we do not look for seed heads, we look
for flowers. So we want to see both of these alfalfa hays are fairly similar. You can see there is
not a lot of flowers. This one’s maybe a tad more mature simply because it has bigger stems. So in alfalfa we look for the flowers. The flower colors are purple or white or
pink and we look for the stem size. Compared to this which doesn’t have really any flowers, much much smaller stems, so again a less mature
hay. So along with maturity, the other thing
that we look at is the species that is in the hay. You can
see here we have alfalfa: it has trifoliate leaves. Here is a red clover, it is also a legume. Both red clover and
alfalfa are legumes. And here we have a couple blades of
orchard grass and then of course our brome grass seed head. So again you can see we have two legumes, alfalfa and red clover, and then two representative cool season
grasses: smooth brome grass and orchard grass. And the reason we want to know what species are in the hay is that if it isn’t
one of these, it’s likely a weed and we do not want weeds in our horse hay. The other thing is that our legumes
tend to be higher in crude protein higher in calcium and lower in non-structural carbohydrate content compared to our grasses. So we can use
this to our advantage when we are selecting different types of
hays to feed to different classes of horses. And along with the higher amounts of
crude protein, higher calcium and lower amounts of non-structural carbohydrates, A legume hay that is baled at a similar maturity to the grass hays will have more energy, they will be more
energy-dense. And again that is something you can use to your advantage when feeding different classes of horses. The other components we want to look at are touch, color and smell. So if we look here we
have two pretty contrasting colors. We have our nice deep
dark green alfalfa-grass mix hay here. Then we
have a more faded grass hay. And honestly, color doesn’t matter all that
much. What a lighter colored hay means is that
it was exposed to sunlight or maybe exposed to rain and some of the
vitamins and minerals have leached out. However, even the best quality, deepest,
darkest greenest hay that you can find is
going to be lacking in a few essential vitamins and minerals. So it’s
important to be feeding a ration balancer when you’re solely feeding the horse hay and they do not have access to a pasture. And again, that ration balancer fills in the gaps for those vitamins and minerals that are missing in the hays. So, don’t get too hung up on color. If
you’re really concerned about color, request a hay forage analysis to
really see what you have. If you feel, and Amanda can kind of pull hers apart, because this hay is a little bit more
mature, again you can see the timothy seed heads
in this hay. It is a little bit, it’s not quite as soft but it’s not scratchy, it doesn’t have
prickers, doesn’t have thistles or sand burs in it, and of course this
hay is pretty soft. It’s nice, you can just see the amounts
of leaves in this hay. So again, you want it to be soft and you want it just to feel good when
you stick your hand in. Horses have really sensitive mouths
and tongues, so if it pricks your hands and it pricks your arms, it’s going to cause them some problems as
well. So one of the final things were going to talk about, but it really is
critically important is the presence of mold and dust in weeds. So over
here we really have kind of our top premium quality hay. Here is some hay that has molded. The moisture at which
the hay was baled is going to indicate whether it’s going
to mold or not. So as long as the moisture is below 15% we won’t
see mold. If the hay is baled above 18%, we’re likely going to see mold. Characteristics of mold, I’m not going to try to breathe deeply because this is quite moldy, but you can smell it and if you pull
apart the flakes you can see the white mold, you can see the black mold. It does have
a very strong smell, and in fact, you can actually see the mold spores rising up. And if you compare the color, it’s dark. The darkness means that it’s been heated. The molds produce heat as they multiply. And of course, mold is incredibly
detrimental to horses. If you ever smell the hay or see these physical signs of mold, that is a sign to reject the hay. There’s other classes of livestock that might be able to tolerate a little bit of mold, but horses are incredibly susceptible, and moldy hay should be rejected. Also in this hay, we see a few weeds. We see a few different weedy grasses,
this happens to be barnyard grass, not a poisonous plant, but again we want to
keep non-poisonous weeds to less than 10% and of course
if we have a poisonous weed, like hoary alyssum, that is of course an automatic rejection. So in conclusion the take-home messages are to know the maturity, look for signs of seed heads, look for
bigger stems or smaller stems, look for flower development in alfalfa, maturity is the biggest driver of forage
quality. Know the species, know whether you’re
feeding an alfalfa or a grass hay, or maybe an alfalfa-grass hay mix. Don’t get too hung up on color, although
obviously a dark green hay is better in quality, but don’t pass over on those lighter or
bleached colored hays. They still can have a lot of great
nutrients in them. Of course you want hays that are soft, we also want hays that are always free of mold, dust, and poisonous
plants. So those are the key things to remember
when physically evaluating your hay.

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