About Haypersil grass affected!

Making Hay for Horses

All hay is not equal.

We have already talked about avoiding clover hay (and Lucerne hay if your pasture consists of ‘Cool season’ grasses) but the other potential problem lurking in hay is that of ‘high sugars’ as well as high potassium so …




The Nuts & Bolts of Hay

· How do we know what hay is best to feed

· When should we harvest the hay to achieve the perfect horse hay.

‘Sugars’ are generally referred to as NSCs (Non Structural Carbohydrates). These are easily digested and assimilated into the blood- stream and can quickly raise the blood sugars of insulin resistant horses. In other words they are a major problem for any horse prone to laminitis. Ideally, to be safe for horses and ponies, it should be under 10%!

Based on forage tests we have conducted recently that is a lot lower than what many of our hays actually turn out to be and soaking for an hour prior to feeding would be required.

Soaking hay reduces NSC content by approx. 30% and potassium by approx. 50%. It is a very beneficial addition to your daily routine for ‘metabolic’ and laminitis prone horses & ponies.

Understanding how the stage of growth or the maturity of the grass affects NSC and potassium content is vital because it makes a big difference to whether it is suitable for your horse or not.

In a nutshell: Young (vegetative) grass is higher in sugar and potassium than older mature grass

· Mid maturity grass, which, remember, is still green and actively growing, is higher in fibre but is also high in NSCs and Potassium

· Mature grass that has finished growing and has already seeded, is higher in fibre and much lower in NSCs and Potassium.

Over mature grass will make hay that is high in indigestible lignins and tends to be unpalatable for most horses. This is not recommended to feed as it is more like ‘wood’.

· When is the best time of the day to cut the hay?

· Grasses harvested in the morning, following nights when temperatures are 6°C or above will be lower in NSCs because they will have been used up over-night.

· The longer the hay is dried in the paddock, the lower the NSC

· Hay that has been lightly rained on will be lower in NSC; however, it must be completely dry when baled or it will become mouldy.

The challenge here is to persuade your friendly hay contractor to harvest according to these conditions.

*Note that farmers making hay for other livestock will likely harvest it at an earlier stage than is actually ideal for most horses.

Strategies to save hay

Hay saver bags can be fed on the ground ONLY if the horse is unshod - shod hooves could get caught up in them in which case you can hang them from a fence post or a tree.

Horses are not called 'Hay Burners' for no reason. Given the chance they will eat a mountain of hay and some.

They do need something to nibble 24/7 so limiting hay by only feeding a few slices a day is not the answer - hours with no feed going in can cause colic, stomach ulcers and behaviours such as weaving or wind sucking.

The idea then, is to find ways to slow the horses eating down.

Slow feeder hay bags are an excellent method of slowing the rate of munching down however some horses become very adept at pulling the hay out and very soon learn the best ways to get the hay out!

They are also great if you live in an area prone to being windy - no more hay being blown about the paddock!

Double bagging is effective at slowing them down and so is hanging the hay bag from a tre branch so that it swings as they grab it.

The coarser the hay the harder it is for them pull it through the holes so look for coarse hay.

Soaking the hay for an hour or two is a very effective way to reduce not only the sugars but also the potassium and is recommended for obese or laminitic horses.

Non-structural vs Structural Carbohydrates

During the day, when it is sunny, plants manufacture sugars (otherwise known as photosynthesis). These sugars are soluble, are contained within the cells of the plant and are known as Non Structural Carbohydrates (NSC’s).
At night providing the temperature is above 6 degrees*, the sugars are converted to structural carbohydrates or ‘stalk’ – the bricks and mortar part of the plant. The plant thereby grows and becomes higher in fibre. This is why the ‘safest’ time for grazing is considered to be first thing in the morning, (after the sugars have been used up at night and before more are manufactured after the sun comes out during the afternoon)

The relative content of Non-Structural to Structural Carbohydrates is very significant when it comes to feeding horses. The younger the plant, the more NCS’s** compared to the structural (NDF***) ie the higher in sugar and lower in fibre. Horses really need the plant to be higher in fibre and lower in sugars which takes until late spring to achieve. Hence ‘stage of growth’ of the grass is just as crucial to the health of your horse as which species of grass it is.

The billions of micro-organisms that populate the hind gut of the horse need a continuous supply of fibre to survive and be healthy. Healthy, happy hind-gut microbes results in a healthy, happy horse.
Proteins, sugars (NSCs) and Starches do not even make it to the hind gut because they are processed in the small intestine. Therefore the following: grains, protein meals, processed feeds, extruded feeds and molasses, simply do not feed the all-important hind gut flora which are inadvertently starved - and starving the hindgut flora has serious consequences for the health and behaviour of your horse.

Keeping a horse on short green grass is starving the flora and the horse. The flora needs fibre and that means mature grass (as close to standing hay as possible) or hay.

In order to reduce the quantity of spring grass being consumed it is common practice to graze paddocks down to nothing, maybe getting the sheep in to help accomplish this. If you are doing this then make sure the horses have plenty of hay morning and night to feed the hind-gut flora.

Therefore, prioritizing fibre in the horses’ diet, is crucial and will result in huge benefits. Think well ahead for both your pasture management strategies and your hay supply.

*Grass growth needs a temperature of over 6C for significant growth, but growth rate increases rapidly as the temperature goes from 6C up to 12-13C and then more slowly until the temperature reaches 20-25C, which is the optimum for growth. In early spring, grass growth responds to increasing light intensity and day length, especially the number of hours of bright sunshine.

** Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC) – This includes the sugars and starches, which are the carbohydrates that can be broken down by enzymes and absorbed from the small intestine into the blood stream as glucose. 

***NDF: a measure of hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin representing the fibrous bulk of the forage. These three components are classified as cell wall or structural carbohydrates. They give the plant rigidity enabling it to support itself as it grows, much like the skeleton in animals. NDF can be negatively correlated with intake.
Make sure you supply hay if you do have grass that is short!