Hay, a staple for horses and the main source of forage in the diet, needs to be good quality to keep a horse healthy, according to one Purina equine expert.
“The most important factor determining hay quality is the stage of plant maturity at time of harvest,” said Gina M. Fresquez, technical specialist for Equine Technical Services at Purina Animal Nutrition. “Young, immature plants contain more nutrients than older, stemmier plants. Though after hay is harvested, the level of hay quality goes beyond the age of the plant at harvest as there are more factors to consider.”
When selecting your horse’s forage, Fresquez recommends keeping these six signs of good quality hay in mind:
1. High leaf-to-stem ratio
Think about the leafy greens you eat. You likely prefer greens with leaves rather than just stems. The same is true for your horse.
2. Small diameter stems
Stems smaller in diameter or finer are also indicators of higher quality. Small stems mean the plant was less mature when cut.
3. Few seed heads or blooms
No matter the species of plant, hay with little to no seed heads or blooms indicates a younger, early maturity plant, and thus a higher quality hay. For example, timothy should be cut in the pre-bloom or early-bloom stage when you see little to no seed heads; and alfalfa (for horses) should be cut at early to mid-bloom stage.
4. Fresh smell and appearance
Avoid musty, moldy, or off-setting smelling hay, because it can reduce palatability and indicate poor quality.
Hay should be primarily made up of the harvested forages. Even if most of the hay is high quality, hays containing dirt, mold, weeds, trash or other foreign materials indicate poorer quality hay and may be unfit to feed to horses.
Good quality hay should be bright green in color with little fading. A bleached, yellow, brown or black color may indicate aged hay, mold, or poor storage conditions.