Timothy’s the best. Alfalfa will make your horse hot. Hay should always be green. You’ve probably heard statements like these before. Are they true?
Timothy is a common grass hay; it’s pretty easy to identify with its stove-pipe shape and has a recognizable name, so it’s often propelled into the “hay of choice” for many horse owners. “My horse won’t eat orchardgrass! He only eats timothy!” is something I’ve been told several times. Depending on the individual, I may try to explain this phenomenon…or sometimes it’s best just to smile and nod, knowing some people will believe what they want and ignore what the rest.
So, what’s the difference between timothy and orchardgrass? Nutritionally, not much. Both are cool-season grasses, meaning they grow best in spring and fall, and may go dormant during the heat of the summer. Like any grass, they should be harvested in the “mid boot” stage, or before going to seed. Every spring, a plant has two goals in life: grow and reproduce. While growing, the plant has nutrients concentrated its leaves. Once the plant is into the reproductive life stage, most of its energy and nutrients go towards budding, flowering, and making the seed; the stem and leaves become fibrous as the protein and sugars go to into the seedhead.
What does this mean to your horse? If the grass is too mature when cut, those stems and leaves won’t taste so good, and you’ll see a lot of wasted hay trashed around his stall. He’ll eat the seed tops and pick through the rest. Have you noticed in a pasture, your horse eats one area down to the nubs, while seemingly ignoring the tall, lush-looking grass on the other side of the field? What looks tall and lush to us is actually just a lot of tasteless fiber. The horse wants the tender young shoots with sugar and protein.
So why would a horse choose timothy hay over orchard, or vice versa? Likely it had to do with when the hay was produced by the farmer; overripe grass of any species will never taste as good as early-cut hay from another variety. Horses are browsers, and most of them will select the most tasty (nutritious) forage available. This could be timothy, orchard, brome, bluegrass, fescue, or a number of other varieties. I’ve yet to meet a horse with such a refined palate that he eats only one type of grass; it all has to do with the growth stage of what’s offered.
So how do you know if your hay was cut on time? Look for the seedheads. Since timothy is so easily identified, many horse owners choose the bale with a lot of seedhead hanging out…and then wonder why the horse wastes most of it. If you see a lot of long timothy heads and stems, that means the rest of the plant is mostly fiber. Instead, look for timothy with small, short seedheads, possibly still wrapped a bit in a leaf blade. That’s early-cut, and will still have lots of nutrition left in the stem and leaf. Orchardgrass is similar, though with a different seed top; look for lots of blade, and bushy seed heads packed tightly, not open that have already dropped their seed.
Second (or fall) cuttings may not have the grass seedheads. The cutting (1st/2nd/3rd, etc) of hay doesn’t matter much, so long as it was properly managed and produced.
Now, the A-word: alfalfa. Alfalfa is the source of many myths…some won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, others (out west, especially) feed it exclusively. Most horses find alfalfa to be very tasty, so palatability is rarely an issue. Alfalfa is a legume, not a grass; it is in the same family as clover and soybeans, and it can fixate nitrogen from the air. It has about twice as much protein as grass (20% or more compared to 8-10%), and is a good source of calcium. Straight alfalfa is excellent for broodmares making milk– and dairy cattle, where the prime crop (25%+ protein) ends up. It provides more calories and can be a good choice for weight gain; this means it may not be the best for a fat “air fern” horse, but maybe for your skinny OTTB.
Alfalfa, like other forages, goes through its own growth/reproductive cycle. It blooms small purple flowers that eventually turn into little corkscrew seeds. If you see this in your hay, it was cut way too late! Over-mature alfalfa is stemmy, leaf-less, and fibrous (not tasty). Alfalfa should be cut well before it reaches full bloom; this is about every 28-30 days during the growing season. Depending on the area of the country, a hay farmer could get 3, 4, or (out west, irrigated) up to 7 cuttings per year; yield usually decreases per cut, but quality may improve.
The source of alfalfa’s goodness is in the leaf, so look for lots of soft leaves in a bale. Often, when a baled a bit too dry (better than wet!), the brittle leaves “shatter” and fall out; you’ll notice the little pieces as you feed flakes to your horse. Horses love the leaves, and you might notice them pawing at a flake, then shifting it aside and nibbling the bits off the floor.
For a horse with high energy requirements, alfalfa is a good choice…and it’s even better for sport horses when mixed with grass. Alfalfa can be cross-seeded with timothy and/or orchardgrass out in the field, yielding a “T/A” or “O/A” mix. The grass provides a little more filler with the alfalfa, lowering the overall protein to about 12% (+/- depending on ratio), which is good for most sport horses. Farmers like the mix, too, because the grass may boost more tons per acre than straight alfalfa…more yield means more profit in the end.
Grass/alfalfa mix is not without its challenges, though. T/A mix is extremely popular among horse owners…but in reality O/A is possibly a better choice. Why? In Kentucky, timothy is ready to cut around mid-June…but alfalfa is ready for first cut in early to mid May; the forages’ growth is out of sync. A timothy stand can be damaged if harvested too early, but if you wait for the timothy to mature, the alfalfa is way overcooked. Orchardgrass can be cut a bit earlier than timothy, as it matures in late May. And again…nutritionally they are pretty much the same. In Kentucky, at least, orchardgrass is more suitable for an alfalfa mix.
“But my horse ONLY eats T/A! He won’t touch O/A!” I’ve heard that one before, too. Likely, your horse preferred T/A because that particular load was higher on the alfalfa…and horses love alfalfa. Given the choice between a 50/50 grass/alf mix, and a 80/20 grass/alf mix, horses will go after the 50/50 hands-down, regardless of what the grass is.
One quick note on alfalfa– in some arid states (Oklahoma, for example) blister beetles may be a problem in alfalfa hay. The beetles feed on the flower blossoms in late summer, and if baled up in the hay the beetles’ toxin can make horses colic or die. (All the more reason to harvest alfalfa before it blooms!) In humid states such as Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, severe infestations are rare.
Other thoughts on selecting hay:
Good hay doesn’t have to be green. Green is usually a good thing, because overripe hay loses its color before it even goes into the bale. But hay can be harvested green, and get a little sunbleached in the barn; on the outside, it looks like straw but if it was cut on time, it will still retain its nutrition (and taste) that horses desire. Also, some hay preservatives will turn the hay bright green regardless of its growth stage. Horses don’t eat with human eyes, so color should not always influence your buying choices.
Quality hay has more leaf/blade and less stem. This is true; look for seedheads sticking out of the bale…this will identify the type of hay and its stage of maturity when cut. Horses will avoid thick, stalky stems so you should too. Note: alfalfa may appear coarse and stemmy, yet still have lots of leaf inside. Ask your hay seller to cut open a bale and inspect the leaf content of the inner flake.
Know what mold looks like. While all hay has some dust (you should see the what the baler looks like after 3000 bales a day!), normal hay dust is greenish brown, the same color as normal hay, and is fairly “heavy” (it doesn’t float around like smoke). White powder or black mushy spots on a bale are signs of mold– do not feed to horses! Hay that molds within the bale (between flakes) was baled too wet, and there’s no hope of saving it. Often those wet bales are extra heavy, and the flakes are stuck together. Bales stored fresh from the field on the bottom of the stack will often have a thin layer of mold on the ground surface; this is where the hay “sweats” against the ground and cannot dry out.
Look for quality bales, consistent with similar size and weight. One heavy bale among a group of light bales could be moldy or weedy. I prefer plastic twine to sisal; it usually produces a tighter, more dense bale that stacks better and isn’t prone to losing a string (hate that!). Also, mice love sisal string…if you leave hay stored for an extended time (like a year), mice may eat the sisal leaving you with a pile of no-longer-baled hay.
Buy by the ton. Hay sellers often price hay by the bale, but this isn’t always fair. $8 for a 40-lb bale is much different than $8 for a 70-lb bale; and due to inconsistencies in the field, in windrows or baler speed, there’s likely to be some variation in bale size within a load of hay. Conversely, $200/ton is the same no matter how much each individual bale weighs. Price will vary depending on region and economics (supply and demand).
Get what you pay for. Florida, in particular, is full of hay brokers who buy random loads of hay from who knows where, label it as whatever they need, and sell it for a large profit beyond what they paid. I’m not against capitalism, but often such hay sellers have no idea what they’re selling; anything with alfalfa mix becomes “T/A” because that’s what most customers want…regardless if it has timothy in it. If you’re paying for T/A, look for timothy and alfalfa. Or if it’s pure alfalfa, there shouldn’t be any fescue. An honest dealer will tell you where the hay came from, and what’s in it; “primarily orchardgrass, with a mix of other grasses, baled in southern Ohio” is a perfectly suitable answer if that’s the case. Hay doesn’t have to be “purebred” to be quality, nor does it have to be from any particular state; good hay can be grown anywhere so long as the soil and climate is suitable.
Know what your horse needs. Fat, easy keepers or hardy breeds such as QH, Arab, Morgan, and many ponies probably do not need high-octane alfalfa. Those horses will do just fine on moderate quality grass–in their case, you can buy the cheaper stemmy stuff because they need more fiber and fewer digestible calories. Insulin-resistant horses do best on that kind of hay as well. However, a lactating TB broodmare needs a lot more calories and calcium, so alfalfa is a great choice for her– and she should stay far away from fescue, which may contain an endophyte that causes redbag, abortion, or decreased milk production. Most average horses do well on quality grass, or grass/alfalfa mix.
Remember, horses should consume 1-2% of their body weight in forage daily— that’s 10-20lbs for a 1000-lb animal. Horses are designed to graze and nibble for most of their day; having hay available at all times can help reduce boredom and ulcers, as well as encouraging proper gut motility. If your horse would abuse the free-choice hay buffet (consuming 40lbs per day or more!), consider a slow-feed, small-hole haynet to make a few flakes last longer. If you have a hay-waster, feed smaller amounts in several feedings to prevent the “Oh look! More bedding!” attitude. I prefer to feed hay on the ground, so that dust does not fall into the horse’s eyes, and gravity helps keep it out of their airway. Haynets are a pain, but work well for some horses, particularly if you are mixing flakes of straight alfalfa with flakes of grass…my favorite trick to fill a net is to lay it open inside an empty muck tub, like a trash bag, and stuff it full. Hay should always be the center of a horse’s ration, with additional calories, vitamins, and minerals added to fill in the nutritional gaps.
[More on choosing hay for horses, from the University of Kentucky – PDF]
Coming up: hay testing. Why should you test your hay? What does it mean? ADF, NDF, CP, DM…and you thought eventing had a lot of abbreviations! We’ll break down a hay analysis sheet and interpret the numbers, and how that could affect your horse. Have hay questions? Email them to [email protected] and I’ll pass them on to the hay expert!