Should I Feed My Horse Hay or Haylage?

Making the decision between Hay & Haylage can often be a difficult decision for many horse owners. Horses need adequate fibre in their diet to keep their large intestine working properly and, traditionally, in the winter period, this has been supplied by hay. But acquiring hay of consistent quality has always been a problem as the horse is a fussy feeder and will reject poor quality material, especially if there is an unusual smell or significant moulding present.

Poorer quality hay is low in nutrients and could cause severe long term health problems due to the presence of moulds. The low moisture content of hay allows the mould spores to become airborne which may cause an allergic respiratory disease called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) commonly known as a dust cough or allergy. Already up to one in every five horses suffers from some form of dust allergy.

Once a horse has been affected it will never recover and will always need special attention to minimise exposure to dust. For instance it will be necessary to soak hay prior to feeding, a tiresome, labour intensive task that leaches out nutrients leading to a further reduction in the hay’s nutritional value and may still not succeed in controlling the disease.

Many equine nutritionists now recommend feeding haylage instead of hay although there are pros and cons to each. Haylage is much closer to the horses natural diet of grass, both in texture and nutritional value it is more palatable and digestible than hay, has a higher nutritional value and is less dusty. If made properly it will contain few, if any, mould spores and its higher moisture content helps prevent any spores that are present from becoming airborne and causing problems.

The main question to ask yourself is what is the most suitable for my horse? To this, there are a number of important factors to consider. Every equines nutritional needs are different, and there are no hard and fast rules as to what works best for each individual. However, the pros and cons of each feed should be considered when choosing what is best for you.

Advantages of Feeding Haylage

* Haylage is dust free

* Haylage bales are denser

* Haylage bales are wrapped in polythene, ideal for storing outside

* Haylage is more palatable than hay which makes it more enjoyable and less wastage

* Higher nutritional value so you can purchase less feed

* A natural feed and more easily digested, horses prefer wetter forages

* More cost-effective

Haylage is often considered more expensive than hay but that is in terms of fresh weight consumed. If its higher nutritional value is taken into account there is really little difference, it may even be cheaper on a total feed cost per day basis, and it has additional health and welfare benefits.

Advantages of Feeding Hay

* Hay, if of a good quality, will provide horses and ponies in light work or who are good doers with the sufficient amount of forage needed for energy. In this respect it is also good for feeding ad-lib. With its lower energy value, enough can be fed to provide the horse with sufficient forage, without concern about unwanted weight gain associated with feeding haylage.

* Hay of good quality will remain in good condition for a long period if stored correctly, unlike haylage that once opened must be used as soon as possible.

* Hay is a cheaper to buy than Haylage

Making The Change from Hay to Haylage or Visa Versa

The large intestine contains bacteria to help digest the fibre in feeds. They are very sensitive to changes in the diet so make the switch gradually, say over a week, to allow the bacteria time to adapt. This should prevent stomach upsets.

You also need to get used to handling haylage so as not to over or under feed your horse. A typical 500 kg 16hh riding horse requires a minimum daily roughage intake of about 1% bodyweight, ie 5kg of hay, or, due to its higher moisture content, 7 to 8.5kg of haylage. But although you need more haylage by weight you need much less by volume as, again due to its higher moisture, haylage is much denser than hay. At the beginning it is best to weigh out the required amount each day until you get used to judging it.

Haylage dry matter has about 10% higher nutritional value than hay so if you are feeding the equivalent in terms of dry matter, you can also cut down on supplementary feed as less will be needed to meet the horses energy requirements.

So there we have it. The differences between hay and haylage are considerable and each have their own benefits. Both feedstuffs have their individual advantages and disadvantages and these factors must be taken into consideration alongside each equines individual needs and requirements.