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Horse Hay: How to identify the good stuff…

I wanted to share this article from with you today. Its a great article that teaches us how to tell good hay from bad… Enjoy!


Horses are very fussy about their hay, and are likely to take it as a personal insult if their owners don’t deliver the good stuff.

Knowing how to identify good hay is an essential skill for any horse owner, for two reasons. Firstly, who wants to fork out good cash for bad hay? Secondly, horses will struggle to get any real nutritional value from rumpty hay. They may not even eat it. Dusty and mouldy hay may even do your horse harm, and its overall poor quality might bring on a case of hay-induced colic.


Inspect it closely. You’re after hay with plenty of leaf matter. Hay with an abundance of stalk and mature seedheads will have been baled past its best. Look for evidence of dried weeds and thistles – you’re wanting to buy dried grass, not weeds. Casually check out the paddocks as you head for the haystack. If you see lots of thistles and other undesirable weeds, there’s a good chance the hay will have its fair share, too.

You may see a lot of stalky hay if it’s been a difficult season. It may still be acceptable for horses if they’re going to enjoy a quiet winter, but don’t kid yourself. It will have more fibre and less protein than leafier hay. You’ll be better off paying a bit more for hay with a higher leaf content – if it’s available. If you see small immature seedheads, the hay will be fine. In fact, some consider this to be an ideal state for hay-making.


Good hay is a pale green to pale gold in colour. If it looks dull and brown there’s a good chance it copped rain while drying. If it’s really golden, it may have been too dry when cut. The best area to assess colour is in the heart of a bale, not the outside, which can bleach out in daylight.

Don’t be put off by a bale with part of its exterior bleached. Chances are it has simply been spending its days on the outside of a haystack. The bleached area will probably have lost its vitamin A content, but most of the nutrients should still be there. If you’re not able to cut a random bale to check its interior, thrust a hand inside the bale as far as you can and pull out a fistful to check.


Hay should ideally be baled when the moisture content is around 15 to 17 per cent. Most contractors will assess moisture content on experience. You might get away with slightly higher moisture with conventional bales, but it will be a close-run thing. Moist hay poses a real fire risk, so don’t keep it inside a shed. It also provides perfect growing conditions for mould, which can be toxic to livestock. You’re most likely to find it in the heart of the bale.

This is another thing to check when you cut open a sample bale, or pull out a sample by hand. Mould can show as areas of darker discolouration, but it isn’t always visible. Worry not: you have another weapon in your arsenal. That nose on your face is not just for decoration!


The sweet smell of good hay is just glorious, and comes from a plant chemical called coumarin. But your nose is also an essential tool in sniffing out mould. You may well smell mould before seeing it. If you’re able to cut a sample bale, thrust your nose into its heart before the surrounding air can dilute any odours. Hopefully, you’ll detect a nice sweet smell. If the smell is sharp, musty, almost metallic, it is a sure sign the hay is mould-affected.


If you can tuck a conventional bale under each arm, the grass has almost certainly been dried to a crisp in the paddock before baling. Its nutritional value will be limited. If a single bale is tough to lift, it may be too moist and be breeding mould furiously. You’ll need to lift a few bales to get the hang of this, but once you recognise the right weight range for a good bale, you’ve acquired a useful skill.


How does the hay feel when you work it in your hand? If it feels coarse, your horse is likely to find it that way, too. A good leafy hay will be easy to the touch. Even the stems in good hay should be flexible.


As you test the hay for texture, smell, and weight, take careful note of whether it’s producing much dust. There’s only one place that dust will end up – your horses’ lungs. The dust can come from a number of sources. It could have been blown on to grass during a dry spell before cutting. It may have been kicked up from dry ground by the machinery making the hay. It could also have come from the gradual breakdown of the hay. Whatever the cause, avoid dusty hay.

Leaf shatter

This is where the leaf matter in the hay crumbles when it is touched or disturbed. The main problem is that leaf shatter will quickly rob the affected hay of its nutrients. Leaf shatter can begin even before the hay is baled, especially if a leafy crop is too dry when the contractor rakes it. You have to assess how bad the problem is, but if the bale is disintegrating with every touch, you might be better to look elsewhere.


Hay will gradually lose its nutritional value as it ages, but not as fast as many people think. While new-season hay is probably the best option, well-stored top-quality hay will still be pretty hard to beat, even if it’s a season or two old.


Hay can be stored outside, but there is always a risk that rain may penetrate the covers. Hay that’s been shed-stored and protected from the elements is most likely your best bet. When you get it home, store the hay well. Keep if off the ground, otherwise the hay will soak up moisture like the wick of a candle, effectively ruining the bale. Typically, half the bale may be rendered worthless.

Finally, if you’ve gone to the trouble of sourcing the best hay for your equine friends, make sure they don’t waste it by trampling it into the muddy paddock.

If you’ve bought the hay, it’s a good idea to feed it out in only one part of each paddock. That way you can keep an eye on the areas in question for any weeds that may take root come spring.

I did not write, nor to I own this article. All rights belong to

Article © Horsetalk 2007

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