There are many choices when it comes to buying hay for your horses. The most important thing to remember is to purchase clean hay that’s as free of dust as possible and that’s completely free of dangerous molds that can negatively impact the equines’ respiratory health. Hay that has a greenish color to it will be higher in nutrients than an older brownish or tan hay. Also, nutritional value can vary widely in a particular species, depending on where it’s grown and when it’s harvested.
Below are some of the most popular types of horse hay in the U.S.:
Alfalfa: This is a legume hay as opposed to a grass hay and is probably the most sought-after hay among horse owners. Typical alfalfa is the highest of all hays in total digestible nutrients, and it’s high in crude protein – with an average of 18%. For digestible energy, it ties with red clover as being the highest. Early season alfalfa is usually recommended for pregnant and lactating mares, growing foals, and horses that are heavily worked. Late season alfalfa is better for idle horses. Alfalfa is also very palatable, and since most horses love the taste, they rarely waste any of this hay.
Bermuda: This is a grass hay widely used in the Southern U.S. and is about 9% protein, on average. It’s an excellent hay for idle horses and is available in small rectangular bales and in large round bales. Popular types of Bermuda hay include Alicia, Coastal, Tifton 85, and Jiggs.
Timothy: A grass hay, timothy is around 9% protein. It’s very popular with horse owners but is often cost-prohibitive. If possible purchase timothy from a second cutting. The first will contain numerous weeds, and later cuttings will be lower in nutrient content. The best timothy is cut in the pre-bloom stage or in the early bloom stage. This is another good choice for idle horses.
Orchard grass: Another grass hay, orchard grass has around the same amount of protein as Bermuda grass hay and timothy hay, with an average of 9%. Also like timothy and Bermuda grass hay, it’s a good choice for maintaining horses that are idle.
Red clover: This is another legume hay that ranks near alfalfa in nutrients and is around 15% crude protein. One problem often seen in red clover hay is that it sometimes causes horses to salivate excessively – in other words, to slobber. This reaction is caused by a mold commonly found in the clover, and it isn’t harmful to equine.
Fescue: In digestible nutrients and energy, tall fescue generally rates at the bottom of the hay pile. Fescue averages around 7% protein. Late-harvested fescue is even lower in nutritional value, as well as being lower in taste. Also, some fescue grown in the Southeastern U.S. contains a fungus that can cause problems with gestation and lactation. For this reason, mares in foal should not consume fescue the last three months of pregnancy. Second and subsequent cuttings are of less concern because the fungus affects only the seed, sheath, and stem – not the actual grass blade itself.
Oat hay: Oat hay is gaining popularity with horsemen, largely due to its affordability in some areas. When cut while green and while the oat seeds themselves are still soft, the resulting hay will have about the same protein and nutritional value of other grass hays. One problem found in oat hay is a high concentration of nitrates and a low level of calcium, carotene, and phosphorus. The hay should be tested before feeding it to your horses.