(post by Jason) Today’s blog is something a bit different than the serving we usually dish up. I want to talk a little bit about the importance of regular forage sampling. I know some horses are getting a complete feed but most are not. Most horses in most places get the majority of their calories, protein, minerals and vitamins from a forage source most of the time. In some cases and at certain seasons this forage source may be primarily pasture grasses, long stemmed hay, hay pellets, hay cubes, or a forage substitute like beet pulp. At the end of the day what’s really important is that we have some clue as to what nutrients this forage is providing so we can supplement the missing nutrients, whatever they may be, approximately correctly, both in terms of weight and proportion. Far too often when I ask clients why they are feeding the supplements or grains they are feeding I get answers that can’t be quantified in real terms. While in some cases I agree that symptoms of certain metabolic disorders and nutrient deficiencies can be so overt that supplementation with one or more nutrients is a no brainer, more often supplementation is a shot in the dark.
Fortunately there is a way to quantify the nutrients your horse is currently receiving from forage. This requires taking regular forage samples and sending them off for analysis so that you or someone at your feed store can read the results and quantify what may or may not need to be added to your horse’s diet. Whenever we switch fields and/or switch cuttings; in other words whenever we have a significant change in forage quality we send a sample away so we know where we stand from a nutrition perspective. Contrary to popular opinion taking and sending a forage sample is not difficult to do, it’s not a time consuming procedure, and it’s not expensive other than possibly the initial cost of acquiring a hay probe.
If you Google the term hay probe you will quickly see that there are A LOT of different probes on the market today. All of them have a long list of potential benefits and detriments, far longer than you might initially believe would be possible on such a simple tool. Frankly I don’t have any strong feelings about which probe is the best except to say that I strongly prefer those that attach to either a power drill or a brace and bit as opposed to those you force into a bale with the strength of your arm. As you can see from the photo I opted for a brace and bit rather than a power drill attachment. There are a couple reasons for this. I want to make taking a forage sample as easy as possible so I’ll do it a lot and in a timely fashion. I seem to struggle more than I should to keep batteries charged for my power drills. With a brace and bit I don’t have to worry about that so long as I can twist the brace with my arm. Longevity is the other reason. I’ve used this outfit in commercial applications for eighteen years and I’ve never had to replace any part of it. I would guess this rig has taken upwards of a thousand samples in that time frame, so the initial $200 cost of the probe, brace and bit is negligible at this point.
Once you have a hay probe taking a sample is easy to do . You simply want to core 8-10 bales and dump the contents of your drill into a gallon (4 litre) freezer bag periodically. Once you have a nice sample of hay in the bag, seal it, label it, fill out a form from the lab of your choice and send it off for analysis. We like to use Equi-Analytical Lab, an offshoot of Dairy One Labs in Syracuse, NY. They will send you baggies and envelopes that you can use for your samples if you wish.
Every lab will have a number of options in terms of which nutrients you want tested and which methodologies you want used for the test. If we are totally unsure about what we’re sending them we usually choose a basic wet chemistry equine package that gives us macro minerals, some trace minerals, protein and energy (calories) levels. Wet chemistry is more accurate and slower than running the samples through a spectroscopy machine (NIR), but if you know what you’re sending to the lab and can quantify it the difference in results is usually not large and the cost of an NIR package is a fraction of the same package of nutrients done via wet chemistry. Because we are familiar with the hay we’re sending to Equi-Analytical we usually choose the $28.00 NIR/Plasma Spectroscopy package (they call it the Equi-Tech package).