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What Horses Should Eat

Posted 8/6/2009

With the rainy weather experienced during the first cutting of hay this year, many farmers had difficulty harvesting good quality hay. That is one reason horse owners that are thinking about purchasing hay should get a feed analysis done on all purchased forages. However, the problem maybe "most horse owners may need help interpreting the results of their hay analysis."

Horse hay should be 10-17% moisture and about 10% crude protein. Crude protein is not likely to be a limiting part of the diet except in lactating mares, foals or performance horses, which would require higher levels.

Hay with an acid detergent fiber (ADF) value of 30-35% is good for horses. The lower the ADF value, the more digestible the nutrients in the hay are. Hay at 45% or more ADF is of little nutritional value. Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) levels should be 40-50%, and most horses won’t eat anything above 65%.

Equine feed analyses also provide non-fiber carbohydrate (NFC) estimates to help select feed for horses that show sensitivity to starches and sugars and measure digestible energy (DE) in the hay. For a light working horse, DE should be about 20 Mcal/day, and most hays range from 0.76 to 0.94 Mcal/lb of DE. Calcium and phosphorus ratios can vary among different types of hay, an adult horse in a maintenance phase should have a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio of 3:1 to 1:1.

Rained-on hay may be fine for horses in spite of the color. Green is ideal but overrated. Green is an indication of Vitamin A content and means that the hay has not been rained on prior to baling. Actually rained-on hay (unless it received a lot of rain over several days) is only slightly lower in nutritive value than hay that was not rained on. That loss in value is usually due to more leaf loss due to more handling to dry the hay for baling. If it isn’t moldy and it tests okay, it should be fine to feed because horse owners should be supplementing for the vitamins that tend to be lost in rained-on or older hay anyway.

Some tips on buying hay:

1. Remember that quality forage should be the backbone of your horse’s diet (forage should be a minimum of two-thirds of their nutritional needs).

2. Have a good working relationship with a hay supplier to ensure a consistent and reliable source of hay.

3. Consider adding hay storage space to reduce the effects of price and seasonal fluctuations (i.e. hay is sometimes more expensive in the winter vs. the summer.

4. Buy hay early. Do not wait until late summer or fall to buy hay.

5. Plan in advance. Budget for any price increase and re-evaluate how many horses you can afford to feed.

6. Finally, try to keep your hay type (i.e., grass or alfalfa) consistent. Constantly changing hay types can lead to horse health problems, specifically colic.

A good web site for purchasing hay or determining the price of hay and straw is at for more information on on this or related topics you can contact me at or call (775) 273-2923.

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