Hay is a major expenditure for most horse owners and in some parts of America it’s very hard to find good hay. Therefore it’s important to make sure every bale you buy is a good one and worth its price.
• Open several bales so you can evaluate the hay inside. Don’t worry about slight discoloration on the outside because the outside of hay bales can be bleached by the sun in 72 hours from baling time. However, the nutritional value isn’t affected if the inside is green.
• Choose hay that has soft, flexible stems. Hay with tough, thick stems is harder to eat, especially for older horses, and since doesn’t taste as good, there’s more waste.
• Hay stems become tougher and more fibrous and protein and energy levels decrease as the plant matures. Seed heads in the hay and thick stems mean the hay was cut late and it’s therefore a lower grade of hay.
• Leafiness is an excellent indicator of hay quality. Sixty % of the total digestible nutrients, 70 % of the protein, and 90 % of the vitamins are found in the leaves.
• Refuse hay that is over-cured, sun-bleached all the way through, or smells moldy, musty, dusty, or fermented.
• Avoid dirty, weedy, trashy, or debris-filled hay.
• Check hay for signs of insect infestation. Be especially careful to check for dried blister beetles or beetle parts in alfalfa hay if you live where blister beetles are a problem or if you import hay from those regions). Blister beetles produce a toxic compound called cantharadin. Consuming as few as 12 blister beetles can kill a horse. This beetle is rarely found in first-cutting alfalfa. They’re more likely to be found in hay produced in the Southern states or during periods of drought. As shown in this picture, they don’t all look alike, so if in doubt, take a specimen to your County Extension agent for identification.
• Turn down bales that are unusually heavy for their size or that feel warm. Extra-heavy bales are often moldy and warm bales are starting to mold. Warm bales can cause spontaneous combustion and burn down your barn.
• Buy by the ton, not the bale. Without weighing it, it’s hard to tell the difference between a 50 pound bale and a 60 bale. If they’re of comparable quality and you pay the same price per bale, lighter bales are a bad buy.
• Try to purchase enough good hay to last a season. For example, if an 1100-pound horse eats 2 % of his body weight in hay per day for 6 months, plan on buying 2 tons of hay. To preserve its nutritional value, however, buy no more hay than you can properly store.
• To get the best price on hay, consider buying cooperatively with friends. Also consider buying hay directly from the field since it’s usually priced considerably higher once it’s stored.
• When possible, buy hay from a reputable dealer who stands behind his product. Buying from individuals can be frustrating and a very expensive venture. If you do it, be aware of bait-and-switch: you’re shown one product but the seller loads or delivers another. We’ve wasted a lot of money this way since moving to the Arkansas Ozarks where we’ve learned the hard way that honor among hay sellers is not a given. Make sure, up front, that the seller will replace bad hay and then carefully examine bales as they’re loaded on your truck, or if purchased delivered, as they’re unloaded, so you can refuse it if it isn’t what you want.
Since high quality and junk hay often sell for the same prices, learn to evaluate hay before you buy.
• Green hay usually contains plenty of protein and vitamins. Hay that’s yellow or tan all the way through could be sun-bleached or it might have been rained on prior to baling. Rain leaches nutrients from hay and decreases its quality. Dark brown hay overheated because it was baled too moist or it was rained on after baling.
• Hay should smell fresh and sweet. If it smells musty, it was baled while damp or it was stored improperly. Also avoid dusty hay. Dust causes serious respiratory problems like heaves and in some cases the dust is actually mold spores. Shake out a flake of dusty hay. If the “dust” is a grayish-white color, it’s mold. If the flakes are hard or stick together in clumps, the bale is moldy.
• Green net wrap makes most big bales of hay look green from the outside. Dig your hand in from the end and evaluate hay from the inside the bale before buying.
• Buy hay free of insects and trash. Sticks and chunks of mud weigh up heavy when buying hay by the ton. Baled-up briars and stickers can injure your horse’s mouth. As mentioned above, blister beetles are extremely toxic to horses. And toxic weeds can be hard to distinguish from non-toxic species once the plant has dried and been baled into hay. Thick stemmed weeds like milkweed that aren’t completely dried prior to baling can also cause moldy areas in the bale.
• Hay with mature weeds in it sheds seeds and if you feed it you’ll soon have crops of weeds established in your pastures. Cheatgrass, broom grass, perilla mint, and bull nettle all came to our farm this way.
• If you find a dried animal like a snake, a mouse, or a rabbit in baled hay, throw the hay away. Horses that eat hay exposed to spoiled carcasses are at risk from botulism.
• If you can, buy tested hay or have large batches of purchased hay tested to be certain that adequate nutrients are being provided to the animals being fed. Your County Extension agent can show you how to collect samples for testing and tell you where to mail them.
– An excerpt from Horse Tips & Tricks; More Than 400 Ways to Care for Your Horse Better, Safer, Faster, Cheaper, by Sue Weaver