5 Considerations for your Horse when Facing Hay Shortages

Hay prices. . .right? We can all tell hay producers are struggling when prices start to rise or, in this case, continue to rise. Even worse, you may be in an area experiencing serious hay shortages this spring. You may be stuck having to buy hay that’s simply available, even if it’s different from your preferred choice.

Critical areas of hay production have struggled to get good growth over the last few years due to consistent droughts. Like many regions this year, dry months followed by extreme wet seasons are making it even more difficult for producers. Even those who managed to get good growth, have a hard time getting high quality dry cuts from their fields. The negative impacts of cutting following heavy rains go beyond stuck equipment. Damage to the ground from tires in mud will hurt the next stands, and we all know the risks of wet hay sitting around.


Still, your horses need to meet their nutritional needs which includes eating around 1.5% to 2% of their body weight each day. So, how should you manage hay shortages?

1) Cut your waste

Take more measures to get the most out of your hay supply. Horses waste a lot of hay from spreading it around, stomping it into the ground or dunking it in their water. Can we all let out a collective sigh for the moment when we walk into the stall and our horse has chosen to poop directly on the nice flake of hay, instead of literally anywhere else?

When you have one or two horses at home, it’s easy to justify this waste and just give them a little more hay every once in a while to make up for it - unless you can’t get more.

Consider using hay nets or slow feeders for every feeding to decrease your horses’ waste while eating. Research at the University of Minnesota* found horses wasted significantly less hay when a slow feeder net is used! Up to 7% of hay was lost when feeding small square bales indoors vs 1% with a feeder, and up to 13% loss outdoors!

Then of course, there’s always some hay loss while being stored. This is another critical area to manage. Pay extra attention to how you store your hay. 

  • Keep your hay indoors, if you can. Otherwise, we recommend covering it completely, with a tarp. In fact, the University of Minnesota* also found that when round bales were stored outdoors without cover, dry matter loss was 7-49%, compared to 2-6% percent when stored indoors.
  • Store it off the ground, on a pallet or another lifted, clean and dry, surface.

2) Account for your hay quality

High quality hay will be richer in nutrients and more calorie-dense. In other words, you’ll need less of it - which can be important during a shortage!

Hay quality is not determined by the particular cutting, but rather by the stage of maturity at the time it was cut. As grasses and legumes continue to grow and mature, the amount of valuable nutrients such as protein and energy decrease. So, mature-cut hay is less digestible than immature-cut hay.

This doubles-down with an added challenge for producers and horse owners. In periods of heavy rainfall, harvesting will be delayed - subsequently decreasing the quality of hay with each day.

Now, it’s important not to “panic buy”, but we generally recommend you buy 3-months of hay at a time. This way, your horse is more likely to be consuming hay from similar cuts and fields, and has as much consistency as possible. So, if you haven’t been able to increase the amount of hay you buy at one time - now would be a good time to start.

Once you have selected your hay, send it out for analysis to better understand it’s nutritional value. Research shows it can take up to 3 weeks for a horse’s digestive system to fully adjust to a new load of hay, so the more you purchase at one time the fewer transitions you will have to make.

3) Explore alternative forage options

Continuous grazing is crucial to a healthy digestive system for your horse. If you feel your access to hay is going to decrease, there are a couple of resources you can explore:

  • If you have pastures, evaluate your ability to utilize this grass with more grazing time. Additionally, consider if there’s more you can do to increase growth through pasture maintenance techniques and even rotation schedules. 

Important note: Learn what type of grass grows on your property. Not all grasses are safe for horses, especially as a core part of their diet, and not all grasses can withstand the same amount of grazing pressure

  • Consider incorporating hay cubes into your feed program. When long stem forage is not available, a great alternative is the use of hay cubes. Hay cubes are an effective means of replacing a large portion of forage in the diet. Adult horses with good dental condition can safely consume 1.5 to 2% of their body weight in cubes every day - for an 1100 lb horse that equates to 22 lb per day of cubes. Keep in mind, horses generally consume hay cubes at a more rapid pace compared to long stem hay. This may mean longer periods on an empty stomach. If possible, offer a small flake of long stem hay in addition to hay cubes.

With all of these alternative forage options, don’t forget the impact of essential nutrients. Keep in mind that no forage, no matter what time it was cut, will provide adequate levels of trace minerals for a horse, especially a growing or performance horse. Horses on a ‘hay-only’ diet should be offered a vitamin and trace mineral package such as Element® or 101 Diet Balancer by Stride Animal Health.

If you start feeding considerably lower quality hay than normal, you may need to consider a higher protein grain source or supplement. This leads us to choosing concentrated feeds, like grain, if you need to close the forage gap even more.

4) Consider supplementing with a complete feed

Upsetting your horse’s digestive system is always a top concern when making any changes to their diet - especially when it comes to grain. Not to worry, we’ll provide some recommendations on how to safely increase or change your feed. For now, let’s look at how to choose a grain if you’re trying to fill a calorie gap from a hay shortage.

Complete feeds are a good place to start, but choose wisely. Complete feeds should contain all the nutrients that a horse needs to survive - from vitamins and minerals to protein and fiber.

When it comes to identifying and selecting a complete feed, the fiber content becomes critical. More specifically, the amount of digestible fiber in the diet. The Crude Fiber on the feed tag doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Here are some tips for choosing a complete feed:

  1. Look for a feed advertised as a “complete feed” by a reputable manufacturer
  2. Check the Guaranteed Analysis, on the feed tag, for a Crude Fiber level over 15%
  3. Check the ingredients for early listings of fiber, such as:
    • Dehydrated Alfalfa Meal
    • Soybean Hulls
    • Beet Pulp
    • Rice Hulls
    • Wheat Middlings (high in fiber and protein)
    • Rice Bran (high in fiber and fat)

Note: Any feed that’s high in fiber, should also have a high feeding rate. Many premium senior feeds will be complete feeds as well.

Bluebonnet Feeds produces various complete feeds including: Intensify Senior TherapyEquilene Complete, Performance Plus, and Horseman’s Elite Senior Care.

5) Make careful switches and support your horses’ digestion

A horse’s digestive system is incredibly sensitive to change. This includes concentrates like grain and supplements, as well as hay and forage. So, if you need to adapt to a hay shortage, it’s critical to plan ahead to prevent quick changes and risk of colic.

The first precaution to take if you need to adapt to what’s currently available, is to transition slowly. Safely introducing new grain can take a couple weeks, and the digestive tract may take as long as 28 days to fully adjust to new hay and forage. So, if you keep 3 months of hay on-hand at all times, make sure to plan about a month of overlap to transition between loads.

Check out this infographic for more information and recommendations on transitioning feed and forage.

Research indicates that a leading cause of colic is a rapid change in fiber. Whether you offer a complete feed or not, be sure to provide plenty of easily digestible fiber in your horse’s diet. Fiber should make up at least 50% of your horse’s total intake.

If you choose not to switch to a complete feed, but still need to make up the difference, supplementing with high-fiber products like beet pulp may be a good alternative. Equilene Pro Care is a beet-pulp based feed, with added digestive support. So if you’re concerned about your horse’s gut health and fiber consumption, this would be a good consideration.

Another consideration during times of nutritional uncertainty would be proactive supplementation to support digestive health. A product like GASTRO pHix® can help balance the pH of the stomach while helping soothe and support normal health of tissues along the entire digestive tract. Another option would be ADR Powder, also from Stride Animal Health, to support good bacteria in the gut.

As always, constant access to water is essential.

Should you be forced to make a hasty change, it is wise to lay low for a couple weeks and decrease stress factors (i.e. intense exercise, travel or heat stress) until your horse has had time to fully transition and adjust to the new diet. 

Summary

Having to make a quick change to your horse’s diet is less than ideal, but sometimes things, like the hay supply, are out of your control. Fortunately, with a little proactive planning, adapting doesn’t have to be so scary.

In short, we recommend the following steps:

  1. Get the most out of your hay supply by taking measures to limit waste both in storage and feeding processes. Keep your hay off the ground and dry, and use hay nets or slow feeders.
  2. Get a hold of 3-4 months of high-quality hay at a time. The higher the quality, the less volume you will need. Remember, the more mature the hay, the lower the nutritional value.
  3. Explore alternative forage options, paired with a diet balancer. Forage is critical to a horse’s digestive process. Maintaining pasture grass and increasing grazing time can help extend your hay supply. Hay cubes can also be a good alternative.
  4. If you’re low on forage and need to up your horse’s grain intake, consider a complete feed that’s high in fiber and contains all necessary vitamins and minerals.
  5. Take preventative measures and make changes slowly. Try to transition to new grains over 2-3 weeks, while taking 3-4 weeks for forage. It also can’t hurt to take a proactive approach to preventative digestive care by offering gastric buffer and hind gut support supplements. 

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Sources: *https://extension.umn.edu/horse-nutrition/stretch-hay-supply