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Purchasing and Feeding Forage to Horses in a Drought Year


By Christine Skelly, Equine Specialist Michigan State University

This year, much of the U.S. is experiencing various stages of drought. As of July 24th, the U.S Drought Monitor indicated that 53.4% of the U.S. was experiencing moderate drought or worse, 38.1% is in severe drought or worse, and 17.2% is experiencing extreme drought or worse. Every state in the U.S. is affected by dry conditions and/or high heat this year. That means farmers and horse owners alike are feeding hay to livestock in mid-summer that they wouldn’t usually have to feed until mid-fall. On top of that, hay production will be lower this year for most of the country. Many dairy and cattle farms that usually sell hay will be keeping it to feed their own stock. Loss of corn and other crops will also drive grain prices higher. Waiting until you actually need hay will be risky as hay availability continues to decrease and feed prices rise.

US drought monitor map

Find out how your state is fairing this year by clicking on your state in the U.S. Drought Monitor.

LEARN MORE by going to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Purchase Winter Hay Early

Chances are, by buying hay now, you will have a better selection of hay at a lower price than if you wait until the fall and winter months. If you usually purchase small loads of hay due to lack of storage, see if you can pre-purchase hay with your local supplier so they will store the hay for you until you need it. Since less hay will be cut this year, suppliers will have more storage room than usual and may be willing to work with their best customers. If you have neighbors with storage space, see if you can store your hay in their barns. Depending on rain fall in the next month, we may still get a late summer or early fall hay harvest. However, buying hay in the winter may mean purchasing the lower quality hay at a higher price. Hay supplies will continue to be a challenge, including those that need lower quality hay for all types of animals requiring forages.

Hay for sale

This year, winter hay supplies are predicted to be low in availability and high in price.

FIND HAY: Many states have their own hay sellers list through their Land Grant University or Department of Agriculture.

Stretch Your Hay

Consider stretching your forage supply now to ensure you can feed some long stemmed forage through the winter months. Horses need to eat between 1.5 – 3% of their body weight in feed (based on dry matter intake) to meet their individual requirements. Of that total intake, horses should receive at least 1% of their body weight in forage. For most horses, optimizing the forage portion of their diet to 1.5 – 2% of their body weight, while minimizing their grain intake, is the healthiest way to feed. That means the average 1000 lb horse will eat around 15 - 20 lb of hay per day, or one small bale of hay every 2 – 3 days, assuming small bales range in weight from 40 – 60 lb. This can be an expensive endeavor if there is a shortage in hay.

Ideally, fiber particles from forage should be at least 2 inches in length to help stimulate the intestinal lining of a horse’s gut. When stretching your forage, consider supplementing your long stem hay with other high fiber feeds like hay cubes, hay pellets, and beat pulp. Complete feeds as well as senior feeds are formulated to supply all of the horse’s daily fiber needs. However, horses will still have the psychological urge to chew. By offering long stem forage like hay along with other fiber sources, you can keep your horses happier over the long winter months.

Alfalfa pellets

Alfalfa Pellets

Shredded beet pulp

Dried Shredded Beet Pulp

LEARN MORE by reading the fact sheet Forage Substitutes for Horses from Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Consider Feeding Different Cuttings or Species of Hay

If you have always fed second cutting grass hay, this may be the year you need to try something new. Hay, whether cut earlier or later in the season, is dependent on maturity at harvest and species to determine its overall nutritional value. As hay matures in the field, it will decrease in both energy and protein, regardless if it is first, second or third cutting. Legumes (alfalfa, clovers, and birdsfoot trefoil) in general will be higher in energy and protein than grasses.

The nutritional value of hay is determined by the forage species and maturity at harvest.

Legume plants are more drought resistant than most grasses due to their long root system, and it may be that you will get more quality nutrition with a mixed hay (grass and legume) or even legume hay this year. You should always feed grain based on the type of hay you are feeding. So if you are feeding hay with more energy and protein than you usually feed, you will probably need to decrease the amount of grain you are feeding – otherwise you may end up with an overweight horse. By the same token, if you are feeding more mature hay than you have in the past, you may need to increase your horse’s grain ration to ensure your horse gets adequate energy in its diet.

You can also feed hay that is over a year old as long as it is clean and dry. All hay loses vitamin stores relatively quickly (in about 3 – 6 months of storage). We always assume that we need to supplement essential vitamins and some minerals based on where hay is grown and the species type. Supplementing hay with a hay balancer or formulated grain that is specific for your horse’s dietary requirements can ensure your horse is getting a balanced diet. Remember to body condition score your horse often to ensure they are neither too fat nor too thin.

LEARN MORE by taking the short learning lesson from on How to Body Condition Score Horses.

Consider Feeding Round Bales

There may be more round bales of hay (800 – 1200 lb) available for purchase than small square hay bales (40 – 80 lb) as we approach the winter months. Usually, hay prices are lower if you purchase hay by the ton than by the number of small square bales, especially if the bales are light weight. 7-10 horses can consume 1 round bale in 3-4 days. Newly designed round bale feeders for horses have been shown to decrease hay loss while ensuring fresh hay is offered, even in inclement weather. Research indicates that a feeder can pay for itself in 2 years, due to decreased hay wastage. Large bales need to be stored indoors, unless they are well wrapped. A tractor or a skid loader is required to move round bales.

Round bale feeders reduce hay wastage.

Avoid Dusty and Moldy Hay

Finally, avoid feeding moldy or dusty hay. Moldy hay can cause colic in horses while dusty hay can lead to respiratory problems. Older horses are particularly susceptible to heaves, a respiratory condition that can be aggravated by dusty, moldy hay.

Additional Resources

Reducing Hay Waste. 2011. My Horse University/eXtension Horses Webcast

Optimizing Hay and Feeding Storage. 2009. My Horse University/eXtension Horses Webcast

Hay Selection. 2007. My Horse University/eXtension Horses Webcast

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