Feeding round hay bales to horses has risks

Concentration of nutrients and overfeeding are among the potential problems

round hay bale feeder

Convenience and dollar savings are often cited as two major advantages when feeding round baled hay, especially when feeding groups of horses. At first glance these advantages may seem obvious, but for actual economic benefit certain conditions need to be met and the inherent health risks to the horses being fed round bales need to be considered.

The preferred forage of choice for most classes of horses is grass hay, even more so when feeding round bales. As the percentage of alfalfa climbs in round bales, health problems become more frequent. As the horses burrow through the bale, the bale collapses, sifting delicate leaves out of the hay, leaving them to settle in pockets at the bottom of the feeder. These pockets of rich, dense leaves are high in proteins and sugars. When consumed in excess by susceptible horses, atypical and unseasonal episodes of laminitis can be triggered. In groups of weanlings these pockets of leaves will spur on non-productive growth spurts and in all groups of horses these pockets of rich leaves can induce colic and digestive upsets.

If round bales are not stored properly or managed appropriately while being fed to the horses, weathering and/or spoiling of hay can substantially whittle away any price-per-pound advantage round baled hay may offer over square baled hay.

If enough horses have access to and consume a round bale in a reasonable time of four to seven days, there may be little concern for spoilage. However, once the twine or plastic covering is removed from the bale, it begins to collapse, losing its resiliency to moisture and spoilage. Warming trends in combination with wet weather begin to take their toll, diminishing the nutritional content of the hay and setting the stage for mouldy patches and caramelization of proteins and sugars. As the hay quality deteriorates, the risk of digestive and respiratory disorders to the horse rises. Digestive upsets, colic and respiratory conditions such as (COPD), also known as heaves become prevalent.

Round baled hay is typically associated with a higher incidence of dust and mould. Therefore horses with respiratory problems are not good candidates in round bale feeding systems.

A certain percentage of hay spoilage is often inherent in the manner in which round bales are fed. It is important to maintain hay quality as the horses feed in order to maximize the nutritional content of the hay.

Dangers for groups

Round bale feeders designed specifically for horses limit waste by containing the hay, preventing the horses from trampling and rendering the hay unpalatable.

Although round bale feeders offer advantages when feeding round bales, they also can become problematic in certain groupings of horses. Head, neck, and back injuries are not uncommon. Horses that are startled while feeding or unexpectedly bullied by a pen mate are positioned vulnerably while feeding. For this reason it will be important to recognize the social workings within groups of horses. In addition to becoming targets for bullying, timid horses can become outliers unable to consume their daily requirement of feed, losing weight.

When round baled hay is used, horse owners forfeit the ability to closely monitor intake. Although free-choice forage is a great idea for horses, it can be disadvantageous for the non-stop eater. Slow feed nets designed specifically for round bales can be a useful tool to limit the daily intake of some horses. It may be necessary to separate particular individuals from the feeding group during the day to offset their gluttonous tendency. Slow feed netting will slow down the greedy eaters, but hard keepers may need to be separated and offered a little extra hay.

Monitoring weight gain

Supervision of individual horse’s body condition can identify how individual horses are responding to the round bale feeding system.

Unfortunately round bale feeding methods do little to engage the horses in foraging activity and movement. It is not uncommon for horses with unlimited access to round bales within enclosed wintering grounds to consume 40 to 45 pounds of hay a day when 20 to 25 pounds would suffice. Left unsupervised the majority of horses tends to gain weight over the winter season consuming more calories than are spent. Limited exercise in combination with excessive forage intake sets the stage for metabolic disease and obesity. Weight gain in the winter season is an unnatural phenomena stressing the horse’s internal hormonal and metabolic environment.

Acknowledging the inherent limitations and health risks of feeding round bales of hay will identify whether it is suitable for the individual horse.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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