Stretching your hay budget

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Farm Forum

Most livestock owners, including horse owners, have noticed that the price of feed (both hay and grain) has increased. There are several key factors that have contributed to these increases, including extreme weather patterns, high oil prices, currency fluctuations, and a surge in global food demand. Horses have evolved on diets composed entirely of forage. Therefore, forage should be the primary component of a horse’s diet (at least 2/3 of their diet). Thus, horse owners, unlike other livestock owners, have few options other than forages to use to meet their horse’s nutritional requirements. However, there are management practices and a few forage alternatives that can help horse owners ride out high feed prices.

Management Practices. Take a critical look at equine body condition and maintain a body condition score of 5 (on a scale of 1 to 9). Horses that maintain their weight on forage-only diets do not usually require any concentrate (grain). A well-formulated ration balancer (concentrated vitamin and mineral mix) will ensure that vitamin and mineral needs are being met when dried hay is the sole dietary component. Even the best, nutrient-dense hay will be deficient in essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, copper, zinc, iodine, selenium and manganese (in alfalfa hay).

While all forage offered to horses should be free of dust, mold, weeds, and foreign debris, the nutrient density of the forage offered can vary depending on the type of horses being fed. Forage selection should be based on horse needs, as there is no one forage best suited for all classes of horses. For example, providing a nutrient dense forage like vegetative alfalfa hay to ‘easy keepers’ can create obesity issues; however, that same hay would be a good option for a performance horse with elevated nutrient requirements. Have hay tested for quality to help determine how much and what type is best to feed to individual horses. Keep in mind that higher quality hay usually demands a premium price and such hay is not needed by all groups of horses. Finally, older hay, if stored properly, is usually a great option for horses.

Plan ahead and know how much hay you need. Horses eat roughly 2 to 2.5% of their body weight each day. For example an average 1,000 pound horse will eat around 20 to 25 pounds of feed (hay and grain) daily, plus water. Weighing the amount of feed offered will help to avoid over-feeding. When calculating hay needs, make sure to account for wasted hay. For example, in a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota, feeding round-bales to horses without a round-bale feeder resulted in 57% waste, while using different feeders ranged from 5 to 33% hay waste.

The prices of all feed ingredients have increased. Lower-quality, inexpensive grain substitutes (i.e. oat and rice hulls) can lower the nutritional content and palatability of feed. In other words, “you get what you pay for.” When feeding a concentrate is necessary, purchase a high quality product.

Finally, have a good working relationship with a hay supplier to ensure a consistent and reliable source of hay. Consider adding hay storage space to reduce the effects of price and seasonal fluctuations. For example, hay is sometimes more expensive in the winter vs. the summer. Buy hay early (do not wait for late cutings) and budget for the price increase by re-evaluating how many horse you can afford to feed.