Tips for Producing High-Quality Alfalfa Hay for Horses

When harvested correctly, alfalfa is a high-quality source of protein and calcium for horses.

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Producing High-Quality Alfalfa Hay for Horses
When harvested and processed correctly, baled alfalfa is a high-quality source of protein and calcium for horses. | Photo: iStock

Are you thinking about harvesting your own alfalfa next year? If so, there are a few things to keep in mind for producing high-quality alfalfa hay for horses.

The Best Time to Cut

Stage of maturity when you harvest it is particularly important. “As soon as alfalfa starts to bloom it is time to cut that field,” says Glenn Shewmaker, MS, PhD, State Forage Specialist at the University of Idaho, in Moscow. “After it blooms, most of the yield increase is stem. When alfalfa is this mature, horses try to eat just the leaves and sort out the larger, coarser stems.” Follow this rule even if you’re harvesting mixed (alfalfa and grass) hay and the grass isn’t quite ready to be cut when the alfalfa starts to bloom. “Alfalfa usually matures more quickly, starting to bloom before the grass is in the boot stage (at its highest quality, just prior to producing seedheads),” says Shewmaker. “If you wait until you see that first bloom in the alfalfa you are giving up about 20% of potential biomass for the grass but still have a high-quality feed that works well for horses.”

Arid Climate Considerations

The cutting affects your final product. “In an arid climate there is usually less mold on standing plants in the later cuttings, due to dry heat of summer,” says Shewmaker. “Sprinkler irrigation can change that a little, but there is still less mold on the growing alfalfa” in later cuttings than early ones. This is important to remember, because some molds can contain harmful mycotoxins. “It’s usually much easier to get second and third cuttings dry for baling, since by then you have warmer temperatures, more radiation, and the hay is lighter (not as heavy and dense) so it dries quicker,” he says. “Then try to catch it with dew on it for baling (a little moisture to help hold the leaves on and keep them from shattering); this makes ideal harvest conditions.” Many hay producers in arid climates like to bale in the late evening, just as the dew comes on, and stop when the dew gets heavy

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Written by:

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses and Storey’s Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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