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What We Want to Know About Hay

(post by Jason) A lot of people don’t realize that in addition to farming I spent fifteen years putting my education to good practical use balancing rations and troubleshooting for large feed companies in Canada and in the USA. As a consequence of my experiences helping farmers balance the diets they feed to match the nutrients livestock actually needs to perform optimally, our approach to balancing horse diets here at Paradigm Farms is significantly different that what gets done on most horse farms.

On most horse farms as near as I can tell people feed hay of widely varying quality from a wide variety of sources and “let the horse tell them”….or let the farrier tell them, or let the vet tell them, or let a whole host of people with supplements to sell tell them what their horse needs to have a “balanced” diet. To a small degree we do that as well. Sometimes (rarely) a horse will tell us by his actions or his overall condition that he’s feeling ulcer-y, or that he or she may be suffering from an undiagnosed metabolic condition. Of course we address those issues when we see them. But in fifteen years on thousands of farms across the entirety of a continent, and in fifteen MORE years of looking after retired horses (often older and/or special needs horses) on my own farm I have never, ever been able to really balance a diet without quantifying what nutrients the forage contains FIRST.

The first difference between what we do here at Paradigm Farms and what is done in most places is perhaps the biggest one. Instead of buying hay as we need it (common in the equine world) we spent many tens of thousands of dollars building three separate hay barns so that we could store up to eighteen months worth of hay at a time. That gives us piece of mind in cold winters or in drought years, but even more importantly it means our hay supply is *very* consistent day to day and month to month in terms of quality.  You can’t balance what you can’t quantify, and if you’re feeding wildly different hay from wildly different sources you are done before you even get started in terms of actually being able to balance your horse’s diet.

Once we have all our hay put up the next step is to test it in various ways to quantify what we have to work with. Balancing a ration is both an art and a science but to be very frank doing it correctly involves a lot more science than it does art.

Hi-Pro moisture and temperature reader for hay bales; hay probe attached to DeWalt drill for obtaining hay samples

The first step happens as we are putting hay in the barn. We probe it with a moisture and temperature meter. We do this for two reasons. The first is that we like to put up hay of reasonable nutritional quality which means we like to cut it at as early a stage of maturity as it’s possible to do. The earlier you cut hay, the more moisture the plant contains and the longer it takes to adequately dry the very wet plant material out. That’s doubly true in our very humid and wet subtropical climate (Cwa according to Koppen), where getting three dry days in a row is a battle in May and sometimes in June…..right when we’re trying to make dry hay.

moisture reading from one of the hay bales

Ideally we want the moisture content of the bales to be  less than 15% as it’s put in the barn. As you can see the bale I probed was 12.8% moisture, well within ideal limits.  When we have to bale stuff that’s much wetter than 15%… happens sometimes…..we take extra measures to dry it out before it gets stacked because if wet hay gets stacked it will heat. In extreme examples this can cause a barn fire, but frankly we’re not going to attempt to do anything with hay that wet so I’m not worried about fire. Hay that goes through even a mild heating process goes through several metabolic processes (yes it’s dead but it very much behaves as though it’s still alive for some while after it’s cut and baled) that render proteins, complex sugars and starches, and some minerals much less available. The goal is to keep the internal temperature of the bales within ten or fifteen degrees of the outdoor high temperature.

internal temperature reading from one of the hay bales

Since it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32C) when I probed these bales, and since the bales were stacked and put into storage three days ago, a reading of 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28C) in the middle of the bale tells me we’re in very good shape on that front, at least in this batch of hay.

hay samples labeled and ready to be sent off to the lab

The next step is to sample several of the stored bales with a hay probe (attached to the DeWalt drill in Photos 1 and 4) and send those samples to be analyzed at a forage lab. Since we put up nearly 600 large bales (over 200 TONS) of hay this year from at least three different fields, I am sending three samples away to be tested and analyzed. Each sample consists of samples taken from anywhere between five and fifteen rolls of hay.

form from Equi-Analytical to be completed and sent with each sample

The last step in the process of sampling, probing and testing is to send the samples away for analysis. We fill out a form, send the samples away and wait a few weeks to get the results. We do all this sampling, testing and analyzing in order to quantify the nutrients contained in the hay these horses will eat over the coming year. Once we’ve done that, and once we’ve run the results through a ration balancing computer program to identify strengths and weaknesses from a nutritional standpoint THEN we can design a custom grain and/or add supplements around it in order to feed a truly balanced diet to our horses. MUCH more on this topic once we get the results back from our hay tests.

Traveller and Gracie

Missy and Charlotte

Maggie and Diamond

Taylor and Cody

Alfie and Taylor

Remmy and Baner

Cinnamon, Missy and Jake

Maggie, Maddie and Dawn

Dawn and Diamond

Penny and Missy

Lily and Maisie

Cuffie and Lily

Sport, Havana and Dooley

Sport and Bruno

Renny and Cody


Duesy and Merlin

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