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Feeding Old Hay and Other Hay Questions

(post written by Jason) A couple of our blog comments on my last post asked questions about the management of feeding hay, with particular interest in feeding stockpiled hay. I will attempt to answer some of these questions in this post.

The first question is what type of hay do you feed ? We live at the bottom end of the transition zone….the area where northern C3 grasses give way to southern/tropical C4 grasses. Most hay in this part of the world that’s cut before the end of May will feature a mixture of C4 cool season grasses. In a good year we can get two cuttings put up before the end of May and all of this that didn’t get wet, or didn’t get wet too often, makes excellent horse hay. As the summer progresses a lack of moisture and high soil temperatures cause the C3 grasses to go dormant and the C4 grasses take their place. The best local C4 grass hay is a combination of crabgrass, bermudagrass, dallisgrass and zoysia grass. Most of our summer and fall cut hay contains some mixture of the above grasses. This stuff tends to be a little higher in fibre and a little lower in energy and protein than earlier cut C4 grasses but it can work nicely as horse hay. In fact the only thing that really doesn’t work for hay on this farm is the bane of the south…..Johnsongrass hay. It’s extremely stemmy and almost impossible to get dry when it’s cut for hay. We use some for mama cows in short hay years. While it’s safe enough to feed to horses it’s nutritive value is low and the quality is almost always sub par. I have never seen horses voluntarily consume any portion of hay containing Johnsongrass. The next question deals with feeding rounds vs squares vs big squares. My answer to this is that most of the horses here live on pasture so we feed, make and buy a lot of round bales. They are all stored in one of our two hay barns until we feed them. Round bales would be a very unwieldy option for horses that live in stalls. Most of these horses get fed square bales. What sort of hay one chooses to feed is mostly based on what works for the set up they have. Good hay is good hay regardless of how it’s baled. Bad hay won’t be made any better or any more palatable if it’s baled in small square bales vs big round bales. In terms of injuries we have boarded a lot of horses for a very long time. During that time we’ve fed copious quantities of both round bales and square bales. Over time there we’ve seen no difference in the number of injuries….eye or otherwise…..that could be attributed to round vs square bales of hay, or indeed that we could say with certainty were caused by hay at all. In particular we seem to go years without seeing any eye injuries and then for whatever reason we may see several in the course of a few months, regardless of whether we’re feeding hay or not during those months. My last question deals with feeding stockpiled hay. The reason people stockpile hay is to mitigate drought, late springs, early falls, or long, severe winters. The general guideline in this part of the world is that you want to end the winter season with enough hay in the barn to see you half way through the next winter. It goes without saying that the quality of stored hay isn’t going to improve over time. If it went in under sub-optimal conditions it will deteriorate, often quite quickly. Perhaps the question of the day is how long one can feed reasonably feed hay that was put up correctly, and what should be done to mitigate quality issues in stockpiled hay that’s intended to be fed more than a year after it’s made? When I was a boy one of our beef barns had a mow of loose cut red clover hay that my grandfather put up forty years beforehand. It was heavily compressed by the bales we’d stored on it every year since it was put up. One year we finally decided to clean it out. After we dug down into it we were very surprised at how good the hay smelled. The idea was that we were going to spread it on the fields with one of our manure spreaders but (of course) the manure spreader broke one load into moving the hay pile. So we piled it in a gigantic heap in one corner of the cow yard and figured we’d get back to spreading it when we got the manure spreader fixed. We were extremely surprised to come back the next morning to find grandpa’s cows had left their fresh green pasture and had eaten every single leaf and stem of the old red clover hay! As my story suggests, the biggest quality issue in stockpiled hay is palatability and the biggest factor affecting palatability is hay that has a musty odour and taste. Stockpiled hay MUST be baled dry! Hay is often baled at 15% moisture or more. This is great in terms of saving leaves (the most nutritious part of the plant) and it works well for hay that’s going to be fed up within a few months of being made. It doesn’t work at all well when hay is intended to be stockpiled. In order to reduce the likelihood of the hay turning musty we bale any hay we intend to stockpile at 10% moisture or less. Protein levels, energy level and mineral levels decline very slowly in stockpiled hay. Vitamin levels decline more quickly. It’s always a good idea to up the level of mineral and vitamin supplementation when feeding stockpiled hay. In spite of my story it’s also a good idea to feed up any hay that’s more than a year old at the beginning of it’s second year (ie. 12-14 months after it was baled) and definitely to try not to keep hay past the end of it’s 24th month in storage.


Goerge and Romeo both finishing up a good roll with Lofty watching (Gus in the background)

Timbit and Griselle

Rip and Grand

Levendi and Thomas

Cocomo and Lofty

Lotus and Asterik

Lighty, Africa and Taco on the run and having fun

Africa and Lighty

Gibson and Silver

Murphy and Dutch (Africa in the background)

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