Big bales don’t cut it when it comes to horse hay

Horse industry buys more forage than any other livestock sector, but buyers have exacting criteria

horses on a pasture

You could call horse hay buyers the ‘big-little’ customers in the forage business.

They are big buyers, but they typically prefer little packages.

“The horse industry purchases more forage than any other sector in agriculture,” said Les Burwash, manager of horse programs for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“I’m not saying we use more — we buy more. Of the hay that’s fed, at least two-thirds or three-quarters is purchased. A lot of the producers involved in the industry do not raise much hay, if any.”

Horses eat 1.5 to two per cent of their body weight per day in forage, or roughly 20 pounds daily.

But the horse industry has specific criteria.

“In a lot of cases, horse owners are labelled as fussy, but most of the time it is because the horse owner has to be fussy because of the health issues that poor-quality hay causes,” said Jane Thornton, a forage and pasture specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

Horses are highly sensitive to mould spores that can develop in hay with elevated moisture, which can result in serious respiratory issues with repeated exposure.

“The horse industry wants quality hay,” said Burwash. “It has to be put up in a relatively early- to mid-maturity range. It’s also absolutely critical that hay be free of dust and mould.”

The industry generally looks for hay at or below 15 per cent moisture. Industry experts note that hay baled above 15 per cent will likely see the growth of mould.

Alsike is also “out of the picture” for the horse industry.

“The horses develop a photosensitization when consuming alsike clover while grazing and in hay, so you’re going to be asked if the hay has alsike clover in it. If the answer is ‘yes,’ we’re not interested,” said Burwash.

Young horses and lactating mares need alfalfa hay harvested at early to mid-maturity, while performance horses and yearlings do better with mid-maturity alfalfa hay, with protein levels that are 12 to 16 per cent. Mid- to late-maturity grass hay is better for recreation and overweight horses.

Size matters

Next to quality, form is the industry’s next concern. Burwash said Alberta horse owners still prefer small square bales because they don’t have big enough equipment to manage the large round or square bales. However, Manitoba buyers are starting to buy more of the larger bales.

“In Manitoba, horse owners seem to be adapting to using the larger bales. Certainly in the 16 years that I have been involved in the industry, I have seen more people buying the medium squares and/or quality round bales to feed. But many still prefer the small bales as they are easier to handle,” said Thornton. “However, for hay producers, handling the smaller bales is labour intensive.”

Thornton notes a recent advancement in technology that may help meet both the needs of the producers as well as those in the horse industry — a new machine designed in the U.S. called the Bale Band-It.

“It takes small square bales and bundles 21 small square bales into what would essentially be the same as a medium square,” she said. That allows the bundle to be picked up with a bale fork and loaded on a trailer. Yet horse owners can break the bundle on their end.

The Bale Band-It is an automatic small square bale-packaging machine, taking small square bales directly from the baler and stacks the bales three high and seven deep.

“This would enable producers to avoid the loading and transportation hassles of small bales, but then allow the purchasers the convenience of having the smaller square bales,” said Thornton.

While the horse industry may prefer small bales, medium bricks and large round bales are still utilized.

New options

In recent years, many in the industry have begun to use hay nets, which cape the large bales and require the horses to pull the hay through in small mouthfuls, reducing spoilage and may help prevent the inhalation of dust and mould.

“I certainly see some benefits in the hay nets in terms of reduced waste and the ability to control feeding behaviour,” said Thornton. “These nets prevent the horses from grabbing large mouthfuls. They spend a lot more time at the bale picking out hay, which simulates more grazing-like habits. This is better for their health compared to select feeding times throughout the day.”

Hay net or not, small squares remain the horse industry’s product of choice.

“I get that you guys want to put it up in the big rounds or the big squares because it’s more economical, but when it comes to our industry, it’s a whole bunch simpler to use the small squares or the cubes, and that’s what the industry is going to be asking for,” said Burwash.

Both Thornton and Burwash agree that producers who make the small bales can certainly fetch a premium from the horse industry, but will face increased labour requirements.

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