Jane is based in Rockhampton, Queensland and has a wealth of experience in feeding horses correctly.

“Due to ongoing drought conditions and questions I have been asked in the last few weeks I have come up with a simple guide to hay types from the best to the worst for feeding horses in Central Queensland. This is a brief guide so people have information and can make informed choices depending on energy requirements and availability.”

Firstly it is best to explain how much a horse will need to eat, an average horse needs 2.0-2.5% of its body weight to maintain good condition, proper gut function, avoiding gut ulcer development, colic and weight management (an average 14.2 horse will need around 8kg of food a day, and an average 16hh horse will need 10kg of food a day).  In nature this is made up of mostly fibre products in the form of grass. Due to drought and modern practices it has become important to substitute some or all of the horse’s diet with “farmed hays”.

Farmed hays come in many different forms and depending on energy needs, palatability, availability and local differences. Generally as a rule they come grouped into grass hays, legume products and cereal hays.

All hays have an energy value, or as it is known –  DE (Digestible Energy) This indicates how much energy an average horse will be able to extract from a kg of hay. All products are different and there is a variation within the manufacture process and how long it’s been stored; as a rule, the older it is the less energy it has.

All hays have another big consideration which is their NSC level. Simply, this is non-structural carbohydrates or sugars that are present, and as a rule most cereal hays are high in these as they are made from partially developed seed heads and unripened stems of grain producing plants.

The following list of hays provides useful details to help you decipher what will best suit your hose or pony.

  1. Rhodes Grass – the most common type of cut grass hay

Energy value around  9MJ/kg

NSC content (starch 0.34% plus WSC 7.5% = NSC value 8.14%)

Considerations: Easy to feed to most horses, however if coarse or musty then is unpalatable. Safe and cost effective to be fed at lib to all horse type.

  1. Lucerne/ Grassy Lucerne – Pure legume or mix of legume and grass

Energy value around 8-9.3MJ/KG

NSC content Lucerne Hay or chaff mean average of 11%

Grassy Lucerne NSC% mean average 13.6%

Considerations: Highly palatable so can lead to gorging. Some scouring may occur in horses when feeding prime (green) Lucerne. Has higher protein content which has been reported in some cases to increase energy levels. Best fed in addition to pasture (or other grass hays), not as a sole replacement to pasture in prime Lucerne form.  I have found if mixed with other hays it increases palatability and so consumption of less desirable fodder products.  Can cause skin photosensitivity in some horses.  

Cereal Hays (Barley/Oat/Wheat)

  1. Energy value of oaten around approx 7MJ/kg – barley and wheat higher

NSC content    22% average but can be up to 33%, barley 12.1 to 26.3%, wheat 10.5-24.8%

Considerations: Palatable with a very high NSC level which in some horses increases energy levels.  Due to its high sugar content, long-term feeding can lead to dental issues and metabolic issues. Not suitable for laminitis prone or insulin intolerant horses. Issues exist in manufacture with product being baled too early and too green leading to a mouldy product in storage and possibility of mycotoxin development.

One big consideration is to check when you purchase barley hay that it is baled young and is a beardless variety as the barbs on the seed head can get stuck in the horse gums and teeth causing big issues.

  1. Lab Lab/Diolichos Lab Lab

Energy value unknown but suggested to be around that of lucerne

NSC content unknown

Considerations: Quite palatable, can be a good substitute for Lucerne but is prone to being coarse and not well preserved as stems are thick and in the drying process leaf matter is lost. It is used overseas as a cattle and silage crop, no negative side effects have been reported with use in horses, however the coarseness of the hay could lead to digestion issues.

  1. Sorghum Hay/ Forage Hay (another cereal hay)

Energy value variable depending on species, around the same as oaten 7MJ/Kg

NSC content unknown suggested to be high similar to cereal hays

Considerations: Palatable with a high NSC level which in some horses increases energy levels. Due to its high NSC levels, long term feeding can lead to dental issues and metabolic issues due to sugar levels. Not suitable for laminitis prone or insulin intolerant horses. Issues exist in manufacture with product being baled too early and too green leading to a mouldy product in storage and possibility of mycotoxin development. I have also noted that horses manure when fed these products can become smelly.

 Another issue with sorghum is that if it is not manufactured correctly, cut too early, stressed in dry conditions or is not the correct variety grown it can be high in Prussic acid (Cynanide) this is really bad for horses – an indication of high levels of Prussic acid is redness on the leaves and stems – buyer beware! Grain hays comprised of sorghum grass and Johnson grass hay should NOT be fed to horses because of toxicity levels of these plants. Sorghum grasses include sudan grass, Johnson grass, hybrid forage sorghums, and grain sorghums. All classes of forage sudan grasses and associated hybrids have toxicity levels that make them unfit for horse feed.

Issues have been reported with long term use including urine infections and issues with abortion and deformation in foals.

  1. Millet Hay (another cereal hay)

Energy value unknown

NSC content unknown

Considerations: Some varieties are not palatable so often it will take time to adjust to a new type of hay, the greener, the sweeter it is. Excessive selenium levels in some varieties grown can become an issue long term. Some horses have been reported to develop ulcers in the mouth from some varieties as well as mineral imbalances. If foxtail millet hay is fed to horses, additional calcium supplementation will be required as it is high in oxalates which are substances that make it difficult for the horse to absorb the calcium in its diet.

It is important to note that given the conditions, some owners due to cost and supply may be forced to use less desirable hay type to feed their horses as their paddocks become bare and hay more difficult to source. It is extremely important to plan ahead and if adjustments need to be made then this should be done over at least 2 weeks as this avoids issues with colic.

There are also products out there as a soaked feed that can be used as a part replacement for chaff and hay, these include speedibeet, microbeet, fibrebeet, and maxisoy. These will certainly assist with keeping a good quality fibre going through the gut and help increase digestible energy levels of inferior hay products. It is possible to feed these a quite high level of around 1kg dry weight a day (check individual product for details).

As time continues it is important that even if your horse is doing well to ensure that he is getting the correct levels of vitamins and minerals to offset the hay you are feeding. A  Fibregenix balancer supplement will assist with fibre digestion and provide all essential vitamins and minerals and other nutrients required on a daily basis; this will ensure a healthy happy horse come the rains.

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