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Identifying Quality Hay

It’s been a fantastic summer and the best of hay has been made so there should be no trouble in sourcing good quality forage this year for the winter months. Here are a few tips on identifying quality forage. The quality of forage varies considerably, ie its nutritional value. Understanding the factors responsible for variability in quality will increase the chances of sourcing the best hay.  

Forage makes up a significant portion, approx 50 -100%, of the equine diet, depending on concentrate intake. It is a valuable source of energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and most importantly, fibre that is necessary for normal gastrointestinal function in the horse, so sourcing quality forage is hugely important.

Hay quality can be assessed in two ways: by visually assessing the hay in combination with smell and secondly by sending it off for a laboratory analysis. There are two primary factors that influence forage quality: nutrient concentration and nutrient digestibility.

Both of these are strongly influenced by the stage of maturity of the plant. Most of the highly digestible nutrients are present in the leafy part of the plant, with the less digestible components present in the stem and other structural components.

As a plant matures, the relative proportion of leaves to stem decreases. Therefore, the nutrient rich and highly digestible proportions of the plant decrease with age, while the less digestible and less nutrient rich components of the plant increase with age.

The ratio of leaves to stems provides a simple visual measure of maturity that can be used as a relative estimate of digestibility and nutrient content when comparing hay. The degree of maturity can also be estimated by the appearance of seed heads. When a plant becomes fully mature, its seed head will be fully developed. Therefore, a lower proportion of fully developed seed heads is desirable.

Hay should also be examined closely for dust, mould and foreign material (plant or other). Visually assessing hay can help estimate the maturity of the forage. A forage analysis will determine actual nutrient concentration and digestibility.

A forage analysis provides information on: dry matter (DM), crude protein (CP), acid detergent fibre (ADF), neutral detergent fibre (NDF), minerals and vitamins. Although all of the analyzed items are nutritionally important, the key items for assessing forage quality are acid detergent fibre (ADF) and crude protein (CP). ADF is an indication of the cellulose and lignin content of the forage.

Cellulose is a structural carbohydrate present in forages that has very low digestibility in the horse. Lignin is an organic compound present in forages which is essentially indigestible. It also interferes with the digestion of other nutrients.

Therefore, the higher the ADF level, the higher the cellulose and lignin content and the lower the digestibility of the forage. ADF can also be used in conjunction with crude protein (CP) to determine a digestible energy (DE) value. The CP content and DE value are very important pieces of information in regards to forage because energy and protein are the two primary nutrients supplied by forage.

Using a combination of both visual assessment and a laboratory analysis will help you identify not only quality forage but also one that best meets the nutritional requirements of your horse.

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  • Horses
  • Good Forage
  • Good Hay
  • Good Quality Haylage