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Forage First – Preparing for Winter Hay Shortage

Written by

Angie Crawford

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Predicted winter shortage

Western hay varieties like Timothy, Timothy-Alfalfa mixes, Orchardgrass mixes, and Alfalfa are the most desired of all hays. Still, fires, drought, and little water for irrigation have precipitated the perfect storm for hay shortages, which expect to increase through Winter.

Ryan Larson, an Extension economist at Utah State University, states that because of drought, “hay producers and anybody feeding alfalfa, has really paid the price for these current conditions.” Unlike years where only regional drought issues slowed production, most of North America’s Great Plains region has been severely affected, and so have Canadian hay growing areas like Alberta and Ontario. These areas range from abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions, “where forage yields were less than 50 % of long-term averages,” says John Bland of the Alberta Forage Information Network. So, what can we do now?

Proper prior planning.

Let’s refer to the 7 P’s – Proper Prior Planning Prevents Pitifully Poor Performance. We can use this adage in the hay shortage scenario, and it all boils down to this – equestrians will need to purchase hay sooner and be prepared to pay more this year.  

As we go into Winter, overseeding with annual ryegrass or horse-safe cover crops that will provide suitable forage would be appropriate. When in doubt, check with your local County Extension Agent for guidelines and recommendations for your region.   

These should all be a point of consideration in your plan for combating hay uncertainty as we move into Spring. Being proactive with:

  • Pasture management improvement.
  • Pre-ordering hay.
  • Increase storage capacity.
  • Rotational grazing.
  • Mowing.
  • Strip grazing.
  • Removing manure from pasture to increase grazing area 

With the hay shortage comes seeking out forage alternatives. Products such as hay cubes or pellets, and chopped forages, are excellent sources of forage and can help in a pinch with tight hay supplies looming. Other points to consider – help slow down the intake and reduce waste by using hay feeders, nets, and slow feeders, and approach your current supplier and have a conversation to let them know how much hay you will need. Be prepared! The facts are, those not preparing for a shortage will find themselves with pitifully poor performance, in the end, and forage is critical!  

Why Forages?

After water, forage is the next most crucial component of a horse’s diet. When providing long-stemmed forage, whether in the form of pasture, hay, chopped hay, or hay cubes, preferably offer 1.5% to 2% of your horse’s body weight and no less than 1% per day.

The Recommended Forage Intake and Replacement Guideline and Seminole Feed Bagged Forages options in the tables below will assist in calculating the appropriate quantity and variety of forage for your horse.

Table 1 – Recommended Daily Forage in Pounds to be Fed per Day & Seminole Feed Bagged Forages

Why Is Forage So Important?

Horses have evolved as grazers, spending 16-18 hours a day grazing on pasture grasses and local forages. A horse’s stomach is relatively small, but his hindgut is quite large, making the horse an ideal animal to ingest large amounts of fibrous material throughout each day. This fibrous material is what keeps a horse’s digestive tract healthy and functional.

The cecum, colon, and rectum make up the horse’s hindgut, and together, the cecum and colon can hold up to 32 gallons of fibrous material, which slowly ferments over 2-3 days. All the fiber a horse eats is fermented or digested by billions of good bacteria and protozoa that live in the horse’s hindgut. These microorganisms break down the fiber a horse eats, producing volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that provide an important energy source. Did you know…Horses can receive about 70% of their energy needs just from these volatile fatty acids alone?!

Besides being an important energy source, the fiber in a horse’s diet is vital in keeping the horse’s digestive tract functioning properly. A horse’s overall health and well-being are tied directly to the health of the bacterial population in the hindgut. When the fiber digesting microorganisms in the gut are damaged or killed, they release toxins that can cause colic, founder, or hindgut acidosis. Feeding a diet rich in good quality fibers is the best way to keep a horse’s hindgut bacterial population healthy and active, and therefore keep the horse’s overall health at peak condition.  

What Form of Fiber Is Best?

The most natural way for horses to receive fiber is through grazing on pasture grasses. But, when Fall and Winter are approaching, many horse owners will need to replace pasture grass with hay or alternative forage sources like hay cubes, hay pellets, or chopped forages.

Baled hay is either square bales, round rolls, or tightly wired field blocks. Square bales are smaller, easier to handle and provide more flexible storage but tend to be labor-intensive, while round bales and field blocks require much less labor as you can set them in an area, and horses can eat on them for days. 

Rolls and blocks are also usually less expensive on a per ton basis, but storage can be an issue, and there is a potential for mold if they get exposed to the elements. Being fed outside and affected by rain and mud is perhaps the most significant drawback of round bales and field blocks, as horses may not want to eat the entire roll or block, causing unnecessary waste. Using a specialized round bale feeder, house, feeder net, or undercover storage with adequate access can help manage hay loss.  

Bagged Forages

Forages are also found as cubes, pellets, or chopped varieties. Cubes and chopped forages have the same pound-for-pound replacement value, but pellets will need additional long-stemmed forage sources like hay or cubes. Many equestrians find the ease of using bagged products a big plus when calculating a horse’s forage needs. When feeding, bags are much easier to count than figuring out how many flakes of hay are in a square bale. Seminole Bagged Forages are 50#, making it easy to calculate for the forage needs of, for example, two 1100# horses while providing over 2% of their daily forage intake, all with just one bag.  

Seminole Bagged Forages will have a guaranteed analysis and, when stored properly, will not degrade as quickly as a typical bale, roll or block. In addition, they are cleaner, more economical, easier to store, and you will find that there is close to zero waste with a good quality cube, pellet, or chopped forage. We have provided information for you in Table 1 in this article to help you decide how much and which product to incorporate into your winter-feeding program. Table 2 below will provide valuable insight into how to soak cubes.  

Table 2 – Soaking Seminole Bagged Forages

Another consideration when choosing hays is grass versus legume—or cool-season versus warm-season.  

Cool-season grasses include timothy, orchardgrass, ryegrass, and fescue, while warm-season grasses include bromegrass and Bermuda grass (sometimes referred to as coastal or Tifton 85). Legume hays include alfalfa, clover, and perennial peanut hay. In general, legume hays tend to be higher in protein, energy, calcium, and Vitamin A than grass hays. However, legume hays tend to be a bit lower in overall fiber content than grass hays. 

These attributes make legume hays an excellent option for hard-working performance horses, growing horses, and breeding stock. Grass hays, on the other hand, are excellent fiber options for most mature adult horses.

Choose Wisely With a looming hay shortage, preparation and planning will help to offset any fluctuations in supply.  Depending on the specific management considerations of each horse owner and the horses they care for, the decision to feed either square or round hay bales, hay cubes, pellets, chopped forages, legume versus grass hay, or a combination of both. However, no matter what form or kind of hay you choose to feed, it’s essential to make sure you select the highest quality hay possible.  If you have questions about any of our Seminole Feed Bagged Forages or our extensive line of Premium, Super Premium and Seminole Wellness line of feeds, please Contact Us.