Despite the sweltering heat, incessant “songs” of the locusts, and unpredictable evening thunderstorms, those of us in the agricultural industry have been hard at work preparing for Ol’ Man Winter to come nipping at our fingertips. As we know, forage is the absolute cornerstone of the diets for our horses, cattle, and smaller ruminants. Those lush fields of cool-season grasses (fescue, bluegrass, and orchardgrass to name a few) are already being cut, tedded, and baled for the coming months. In anticipation of filling our lofts, hay sheds, and extra stalls, let’s take a closer look at what to focus on when shopping for your animals’ most important winter staple; hay.

    Above, I mentioned the term “cool-season grasses.” This term applies to many of the grasses found in the Piedmont that are used for forage. It simply means that these plants grow primarily during the spring and fall, and tend to slow their growth in the heat of summer. This is not to be confused with legumes, such as clover and alfalfa. We will dive into the specifics of pasture in a few months.

    It is a common misconception that color is the most important factor when selecting your hay. The old culinary adage that “we eat with our eyes first” rings true in this case, but not when it comes to color. In fact, it is common practice to spray hay with ascorbic acid, among other agents, to help it maintain it’s color. Rather, focus on texture, purity, and cleanliness. Hay should be cut in the early stages of maturity, with a nice, long length of the leaf when compared to the stem. You will want to look for hay that is “mostly” composed of the type of grass that you are looking to feed. There should be minimal amounts of weeds, seed heads, sticks, and tree leaves. Finally, whatever shade of green you are seeing, it should be uniform. Darker, “cloudy,” white, or yellow spots within the bale may indicate that the hay might have been baled before it was properly dried. These will lead to public enemies number one and two when it comes to hay; fermentation and mold. Storing hay that has not cured properly has been the cause of many barn fires over the years. Also, don’t be afraid to bury your nose in a bale or two. A few good sniffs will usually catch what our eyes and hands may miss. Hay should never smell unappealing, even to our human senses. Make hay selection a multisensory experience for you, and your kids!

    As with anything pertaining to our animals, there are exceptions to almost every rule. I always recommend and perform a hay analysis from an independent laboratory on my hay and that of my clients when buying in bulk. This gives us a snapshot of the quality and nutrient content of the forage, leading to further discussions on how to feed it to maximize that we, and our animals, get the most from each flake. An analysis looks at everything from nutrient levels to palatability and digestibility. These tests are inexpensive and will enable owners and managers to then further tailor their feeding and management protocols to suit their needs.

    In conclusion, please remember to always keep the specifics of your animals in mind when buying anything for them. Easy keepers may not need the most nutritious forage, as they are very efficient at using what they get. In this case, a more mature, fibrous grass hay may be just what is needed to keep their intestines moving. When feeding horses, they should take in between 1.5 – 2 percent of their body weight per day in forage. Fescue can potentially pose a risk for breeding animals of multiple species. Always encourage your animals to eat their hay slowly, without competition. We want our animals to chew thoroughly, as this is the first step in the digestion process. Keep that clean water flowing, and remember to check the stools of your animals. This is an excellent indicator of hydration, as well as overall gut health and efficiency. Thank you for reading.

See you in the field!