Do You Need To Analyze Your Hay?

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Many horses rely entirely on hay for their forage needs. Is hay nutritious? Not very. Hay is dead grass; it no longer contains many of the vitamins, omega 3s and omega 6s it once had as living pasture. It does, however, contain protein, carbohydrates, and minerals, and is a significant source of energy. But does it have enough to maintain health? Testing will help remove the guesswork out of diet planning.

Feasible approaches to testing

It is best to have at least 2 month’s supply of hay, but you may not have enough space to store that much. Or you may board your horse where a new supply is brought in every week, often from different growers.

Consider recommending testing to your barn manager or hay provider. Hay brokers who test their hay and sell it along with a guaranteed analysis often find that customers are willing to pay slightly more for each bale. If the providers are not willing to do this, you might consider offering to pay for the test; it will help you as well as other horse owners.

Knowing the nutrient content of your hay is the first step in evaluating any health concerns

While a vitamin/mineral supplement is necessary for filling in the nutritional gaps that exist in hay, there are several components of the hay analysis report that you should pay attention to, depending on the health of your horse. Of particular importance are those horses who are prone to developing laminitis. The feed value of your hay can also influence body weight, immune function, and overall body condition. The table below shows relevant indicators when interpreting your hay analysis report.

 

 Hay Analysis Values that Impact Horse Health 
Digestible Energy DE provides you with the number of calories your horse is getting from the hay, expressed as Mcals/lb or Mcals/kg. DE should be no more than 0.88 Mcals/lb (1.94 Mcals/kg) on an as-fed basis, if the horse is overweight.
Crude Protein CP tells you how much protein (nitrogen) is in the hay but tells you nothing about the variety and proportion of amino acids (which influence quality). To boost protein quality, feed a variety of grasses, and add more protein sources (e.g., ground flax, chia seeds, split peas, hemp seeds, alfalfa, beet pulp, etc.)
NDF Neutral detergent fiber measures water-insoluble, structural components within the cell wall: cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin; it does not include water-soluble fibers (pectin and mucilage). As plants mature, NDF increases, providing more bulk and less digestibility. Digestible energy and voluntary intake decreases.NDF greater than 60% is worthwhile for overweight horses since it is lower in calories. Lower NDF hays are softer and more digestible, making them appropriate for maintaining body condition of hard keepers, growing horses, and those with higher energy needs.

 

ESC + Starch Ethanol-soluble carbohydrates include simple sugars and short strands of sugars. These, along with starch, are easily digested in the foregut (small intestine) down to glucose, which signals insulin secretion.Insulin elevation promotes body fat storage and increases the risk of laminitis. Insulin resistant horses require low ESC + Starch, which should ideally be less than 10% on an as-fed basis, and less than 11% on a dry-matter basis. This also applies to horses suffering from PPID and PSSM.

 

Warm season grasses and alfalfa tend to be lower in ESC and higher in starch than cool-season grasses. Grain hays (such as oats, wheat, rye) can develop seed heads which are very high in starch.

WSC + Starch = NSC Water soluble carbohydrates mainly include ESC along with polysaccharides known as fructans which are fermented by the microbial population in the hindgut (cecum and large colon). Too much fructan fermentation reduces hindgut pH, leading to cecal acidosis, endotoxemia, and a cascade of events culminating in laminitis.[i]WSC + Starch equates to the non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) indicator. NSC that is considerably larger than ESC + Starch, indicates high fructans in the hay. Elevated fructans can be problematic for any horse, regardless of health. Cool-season grasses accumulate fructans, whereas warm-season grasses and alfalfa do not.

 

An NSC percentage less than 12% on an as-fed basis (13% on a dry matter basis), is a favorable target for the insulin resistant horse or one who is prone toward laminitis.

Ca:P Ratio Ideally, there should be twice as much calcium as phosphorus in the diet. Most grasses match this ratio. Alfalfa, however, has considerably more calcium. If you feed large amounts of alfalfa, choose supplements that are designed for alfalfa-based diets (they are low in calcium).
Ca:Mg Ratio Ideally, the calcium to magnesium ratio should be 2:1. Magnesium supplementation assists with muscle spasms, “sensitive” behavior, and insulin resistance.
Fe:Zn Ratio Most hays are high in iron so additional supplementation is not necessary. Too much iron exacerbates insulin resistance. Furthermore, iron competes with zinc for absorption. Therefore it should not be more than five times the level of zinc. Zinc deficiencies can lead to depressed immune function and poor wound healing.
Zn:Cu Ratio Excess zinc can interfere with copper absorption. Ideally, zinc should be between 3 and 5 times more than copper. Copper is required throughout the body, including healthy red blood cells, and melanin production in hair coat color.
Nitrates High nitrates can be toxic, interfering with red blood cell’s ability to transport oxygen. Test if your hay has been exposed to excessive fertilization or contains large amounts of weeds. Values should never be higher than 0.44%.

 

How to test your hay

Your goal is to obtain a representative sample, since hay bales can differ, especially if they contain mixtures of forages. Use a hay probe or pull clumps of hay from the inside of 15 to 20 bales. Mix together in a dry bucket. Then pull from the mixture enough to stuff a quart-size freezer bag. Equi-Analytical Labs is an excellent choice for your analysis[ii].

Establish a relationship with your hay producer

If you know the person who actually cuts the grass, discuss environmental factors that can significantly impact the NSC level:[iii]

  • NSC content is lowest before sunrise.
  • Cool nights (less than 40 degrees F (4 degrees C) will promote NSC storage and grass should not be cut the day following a cold night.
  • Grass that is shaded will have a lower NSC level.
  • NSC content increases during drought conditions.
  • Cuttings later in the season will be lower in NSC.
  • More mature grasses will be lower in calories, and more coarse due to a higher indigestible fiber content.
  • Grass that has gone to seed will be higher in starch.

Remember, forage 24/7 is the foundation for any horse

You can have the most expensive, most nutritious hay available, but it must be flowing, non-stop, through your horse’s digestive tract. There are many physiological and hormonal reasons for this; read more in the Getty Equine Nutrition Library[iv], as well as in Dr. Getty’s book, Equine Digestion – It’s Decidedly Different.[v]

About Dr. Getty
Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements. Hear Dr. Getty address issues in horse nutrition at the Kirkland House Foundation in Delta, British Columbia, sponsored by “Hay…Girl!” on May 2, 2015. For more information, contact Pam Janssen at precioushaygirl@gmail.com or call 604-961-7265.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at Dr. Getty’s website, www.gettyequinenutrition.com, as well as from Amazon (www.Amazon.com) and other online book retailers. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered “Spotlight on Equine Nutrition” series are also available at her website (where Dr. Getty offers special package pricing) and from Amazon (in print and Kindle versions) and from other online retailers. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts for horse-loving friends.

Dr. Getty’s website, www.gettyequinenutrition.com, offers a generous stock of free, useful information for the horseperson. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com.

[i] Longland, A.C., and Byrd, B.M., 2006. Pasture nonstructural carbohydrates and equine laminitis. Journal of Nutrition 136: 2099S-2101S.

[ii] Equi-Analytical Labs www.equi-analytical.com, a division of Dairy-One, is a reputable laboratory that concentrates on analyses applicable to horses. Their Equi-Tech test (#601) is economical ($28) and comprehensive, offering an excellent amount of information.

[iii] Watts, K.A., 2004. Forage and pasture management for laminitic horses. Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice, 3(1), 88-95.

[iv] Click on “Library” at www.gettyequinenutrition.com

[v] One of seven volumes in the Spotlight on Equine Nutrition Series: http://gettyequinenutrition.biz/TeleSeminars/TeleseminarBooks/SpotlightonEquineNutritionTeleseminarSeries.htm

Rehabilitation Behaviour Issues

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Question: Hi I have just started to care for a 5 year old Irish Draught x TB – he has a tendon/tendon sheath injury and was about to be put to sleep by his previous owner, due to lack of time and money and the possibility that he may not be able to be ridden again – but as he is normally such an impeccably behaved chap I said I would care for him. He has been stabled now for three months and apparently has not been behaving very well in his 12 foot x 12 foot stable (he is 17.2 hh) – I have moved him to a much larger stable in a quiet yard and he seems much calmer and is great to handle in the box and on the yard. However the vet advised that he can now be taken out for short walks 10 mins twice a day (increasing weekly by 5 mins each walk for the next 4 – 6 weeks) and to do this I take him across to a barn – he is perfectly behaved going to and from the barn but once we get to the barn he is fine for 5 minutes or so and then from nowhere at all comes a little rear – this morning though he did a massive rear and was absolutely vertical -once he came back down he behaved like nothing had happened and wanted to be fussy with me etc. Although I have had my own horse for 10 years now rearing is something I have never had to handle before so I was wondering (a) do you have any ideas why he would be doing this or do you think it is purely a boredom/excitement kind of reaction (he has been known to rear with his previous owner when ridden on the odd occasion). (b) what should I do to stop this behaviour and (c) how should I react when it has occurred. I have only been looking after him for 1 week now and the vet thinks he is likely to be stabled for another three months. When he has done his little rears I told him off in a firm voice and then have just carried on walking him around. Today I stood my ground which was pretty scary and then when he wanted to cuddle and be fussy I just pushed him away from me and told him off – by his reaction it looked as though he was expecting to be thrashed and kept on pulling his head up as though he had also maybe been hit in the face before. If I was able to longe/freeschool him I know I would be able to do something with him but right now due to the injury all I can do is walk him in hand. I hope you will be able to give me some advice as I don’t want either of us to end up injured and three months of this behaviour seems a long long time. Thank you for your help
Best Regards, Georgie
Answer: Georgie, The most important consideration right now is that the horse is rehabilitated. I think from reading your email that you have a very good sense of what is going on with your horse and you are handling it just fine. Imagine the horse’s frustration at being held prisoner in his stall and getting small glimpses of freedom. In this situation, you have to have a great deal of patience and empathy with the horse. Where you would normally not tolerate his disobedient behavior and take corrective action, you are limited in what you can do in this situation. His fractious behavior is stemming from his confinement and is not his fault. The corrective action you would take would be to circle the horse forward when he rears and make him work hard, but you cannot do that because the risk of re-injury is too great. If he just throws one little rearing fit and then is relatively manageable, then I would just ignore it. There are several articles on my website about rearing, but basically, it is either a refusal to move forward or a reaction to having his forward movement inhibited. In your case, I would guess the latter. The solution is always to move the horse forward. In the case of a horse in rehabilitation, when he rears I would just move out to the end of my lead and continue walking forward like nothing was happening. Make sure you stay well clear of the horse’s hooves. I am sure that you have cut back the horse’s ration drastically and it would not hurt him at this point to go down in his weight. Less feed will help prevent him having too much energy in his confinement and the lower body weight will help his recovery. One more suggestion would be to use a rope halter with a 3-4 meter training lead. The rope halter gives you much more control over the horse and is a far superior tool for control and training than is using a chain over or under the horse’s nose. I think you are right on in your intuition about this horse and that you are handling him well, so keep up the good work! I have known plenty of horses to fully recover from tendon injuries. The key is to give them enough time to recover which in some instances may be a couple years. The biggest mistake I see people make with these types of injuries is to try and bring the horse back into work too soon. Once the vet has cleared him from confinement, I would seriously think about turning him out to pasture for a full year. Good luck!