Before diving into the myths surrounding the buying of horse hay, let’s briefly review the horse’s digestive system. Even though the horse can consume forages they do not have the same 4-compartment digestive system as doze the ruminant. A mature dairy cow has a rumen as big as a barrel. The rumen is a large fermentation fat full of micro-organisms that slowly digest fibrous feeds. Once the feeds are in the rumen for several hours the feed and microbes travel down the ruminant’s digestive tract into the small intestine where the microbes themselves are digested and the nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine.
The horse’s digestive system is considerably different from that of the cow. Forage goes directly into the true stomach of the horse rather than into the rumen like in a cow’s digestive system. Unlike the cow, the horse does not have the large rumen with microbes breaking down forages to energy compounds and minimizing the negative effects molds have on the horse’s health
Forage enters the true stomach of the horse where soluble carbohydrates, proteins, fats and some minerals are enzymatically digested like the pig and the human. The forage continues travel to the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream. Flowing on through the digestive system the forage fiber enters the cecum where the material is further broken down by microbes similarly to what occurs in the cow’s rumen.
The quality of hay required to balance the ration of the horse depends on the horse’s age and the level of activity. Young growing horses require a higher level of nutrition than an idle mature horse. An idle mature horse has a protein requirement of 10%. Grass hay will not normally be below 10% crude protein if it is free of large coarse weeds. The quality of the hay is determined by three factors, the grass to stem ratio, the percent legume (clover, alfalfa) in the hay and the cutting date. As cutting date extends past May 25th, quality decreases rapidly.
Relative feed quality (RFQ) is a lab analysis used to estimate the energy and digestibility of a forage. A non-pregnant idle mare requires a hay RFQ of 100-115. This would be a hay containing little legume, relatively weed free, mostly grass hay cut in mid to later June. A nursing mare requires a RFQ hay of 120-145.
The fairest way to buy hay is by the ton corrected to 12-15% moisture. Many horse owner’s bock at this method. Historically hay has been purchased by the bale. Bales vary greatly in average weight. Small square bales are the most costly to make and will vary the most in weight. The perception is that the average small square bale will weigh 45 pounds is a common myth. If the buyer is paying $3.00 per bale and assumes the bale weighs 45# ($133.33/ton) and the bale weighs closer to 38 pounds; the actual price per ton is $157.89 per ton. In other words, the buyer paid almost $25.00 more per ton than they thought they were paying (16% more).
What is a fair price per ton of primarily grass hay with a RFQ of 100-120. The difficulty with producing grass hay is the need to properly dry the hay in the spring when rain and cool weather hinder the drying process. Another disadvantage in growing grasses verses alfalfa is that the grasses have a root system that is 4-8 inches deep compared to alfalfa which can have a tap root 1-2 feet or deeper. This allows the alfalfa plant to produce much more forage in latter summer when rain is less abundant. Alfalfa hay will yield 4-6 tons of dry matter per acre where grass hay will average closer to 2.25 tons per per growing season.
This much lower yield increases the cost to grow grass horse hay. At 2.25 tons per acre the cost to grow and make grass hay will be $125.00 per ton of hay from the field. Add transportation cost and the labor to get the hay into and out of the barn to sell at the auction and the producer is often losing a considerable amount of money. A fair price when buying first crop hay out of the field would be $140.00/ton.
Horse owners should try to find a hay supplier that fertilizes well, sells you the quality of hay you need for the age and activity of your horse and is primarily weed free and as free of dusty molds as possible. The buyer must understand the true cost and struggles the grower has in the production of quality horse hay and pay a fair price.
Farm Business Instructor
Lakeshore/Moraine Park Technical College