One of the most labor-intensive aspects of horse ownership is winter hay feeding. Most U.S. horse owners will have to feed hay at some point because pastures are no longer growing or are limited in quantity or horses must be confined to sacrifice paddocks.
Hay production across the U.S. is valued at more than $12 billion annually, but hay losses during storage and feeding represent a significant expense to horse owners. Proper hay storage and feeding can reduce these losses and preserve forage quality for your horse.
Hay losses during storage can result from both decrease in bale weight and in forage quality. Several factors, including type and size of bale, storage method, and weather conditions can contribute to losses.
Larger, densely-baled packages generally have less loss than those in smaller or loosely-packed bales because of the reduced surface area and ability to shed water.
Where you keep your horses’ hay is also a major factor in storage-related losses. Research indicates that bales stored outside on the ground can lose up to 43% dry matter compared to just 2% when stored in a pole barn. Moisture affects bales stored outside by increasing microbial activity, and rain can leach nutrients like soluble carbohydrates, leading to lower digestibility. These losses are more likely to impact legume hay (alfalfa and clover) than grass hay.
Small square bales should be baled tightly and uniformly in size to aid in stacking. Ideally, bales should be stored on gravel, pallets, or using any other method that reduces moisture-wicking from the ground or floor. If stored outside, bales should be covered with a large waterproof tarp.
Round bales should also be baled with consistent size and density. Covered storage that also limits moisture from the ground is ideal, but outside stored bales can be stacked and covered. If stored without cover, bales should be lined up tightly end-to-end, and their rounded sides should not touch other bales. Bales stored outside sans cover must be able to dry quickly after rain, so do not store them in the shade or under trees Net-wrapping bales could help reduce weathering and physical losses during handling compared to traditional string.
All other factors being equal, outside stored hay should be fed before inside stored hay to reduce losses.
Researchers know that trampling, refusal, and deterioration can all result in significant hay losses during feeding—from 25% to upwards of 60% when no effort is made to mitigate these risks.
When owners feed hay on the ground, horses often walk over it or even lay in it. This leads to contamination with dirt, mud, manure, and urine, all of which can increase feed refusal and losses.
Horses typically pick through hay to find the leafiest pieces while refusing other less appetizing portions. While some feed selection can be helpful—such as to avoid moldy spots or coarse stems—horses can ultimately reject good parts of the bale.
Additionally, hay fed outside is exposed to the same weathering factors as hay stored outside. Physical dry matter losses are common, as is forage quality loss due to leached nutrients.
Feeding hay frequently in small amounts requires more labor but generally encourages horses to refuse less, reduces losses from weathering, and provides fewer opportunities for hay contamination.
Hay Feeder Selection
Aside from feeding smaller hay portions more frequently, owners can reduce losses further by using hay feeders. These can help reduce feed losses to as little as 5 to 10%, depending on the feeder and hay type.
The feeder type you choose will depend on the hay you feed. But there are some basic considerations that span all feeder selections.
One question to ask: How much does the feeder restrict the horse’s hay access to the hay? Feeders that prevent large amounts of hay from being pulled from a bale and then dropped on the ground outside the feeder generally have a lower waste factor.
Roll-bale feeders with the hay in a slow-feed net reduce how much and how fast the horse can consume hay but also significantly control waste.
Another consideration: Is the feeder safe for horses? Look for well-constructed with smooth edges. The “hay hut” feeder is gaining popularity with owners as its designed to protect hay from weather and reduce waste simultaneously. Horses can easily put their heads in to eat and, while they might remove some hay while eating, losses are typically limited.
Also consider how easy—or difficult—the feeder is to refill, as you’ll be doing this task regularly. When filling the feeder, don’t overfill it. While it might seem like you’re maximizing efficiency, an overstuffed feeder can ultimately restrict feed intake and result in more hay being pulled out of the feeder and wasted.
The Bottom Line
Selecting and using a feeder that works for you and your horses reduces waste and helps you save on feed costs. Feeder use reportedly helps owners save enough on feed bills to cover its cost in two to nine months. And, once the feeder is paid for, it is available in subsequent years and will keep owners keep feed costs lower in the future.
Krista Lea, MS, research analyst and coordinator of the University of Kentucky’s Horse Pasture Evaluation Program in the department of Plant and Soil Sciences; Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist in the department of Plant and Soil Sciences; and Bob Coleman, Ph.D. PAS Dipl ACAS-Nutrition, associate professor in equine extension in the department of Animal and Food Sciences, provided this information.