This is the most traditional method of conserving grass. Hay has been conserved for centuries in fact a writer in roman times gave a detailed description of the making of hay. The weather can have many changes to haylage, because haylage does not need to wilt in the field for as long as hay and so a shorter period of good weather is required to make haylage.
Hay can also vary tremendously in nutritional content, mostly determined by the time of year it is harvested i.e. the stage of the grass growth cycle, this in turn is often predetermined by the weather and also the species of grasses used to make hay. Alfalfa hay (a legume hay) has a higher level of digestible energy, vitamin A, calcium, and other nutrients than grass hay. Alfalfa, for instance, can have twice the protein and three times the calcium of typical grass hay.
Two Types of Hay
There are generally two types of hay made for horses, namely meadow hay and seed hay. Meadow hay contains many different grass and herb species, all maturing at different times through the summer. This results in more leaf and seed heads and is normally less stalky and softer to touch. Seed hay is now thought to be single species grass hay such as Ryegrass, Timothy or Alfalfa. This is stalkier and less leafy than meadow hay and so feels harder to the touch.
Good hay will have been cut and dried thoroughly at the right time, baled and stored properly. The main problem with hay tends to be related to its hygienic quality. The weather conditions in the UK are not always favourable for thorough drying and mown hay is often rained upon. Barn dried hay however relies less on the weather. Barn drying hay gives an added advantage to cut the crop at its optimum stage of maturity as less sunny, dry days are required for it to wilt or lie drying in the field. This also reduces bleaching.
Hay that has been made properly does not need to be stored in a barn for 6-12 months before feeding, it can be fed straight away whilst still relatively nutritious. Feeding one-year-old hay that has been left to gather dust in a barn and which has lost its vitamins is simply another myth.
Hay may be also be soaked for horses with respiratory allergies to reduce dust levels and to swell any fungal spores that may be present to a size where they should become harmless. Soaked hay should be fully submerged in water for twenty to thirty minutes, no longer prior to feeding. However, for horses and ponies prone to laminitis it can be soaked for an hour to help remove any soluble sugars present.
One of the possible problems encountered when feeding hay includes risk of impaction if a horse is not drinking enough water. This is why hay should be introduced slowly in autumn, a little at a time for the digestive tract to adapt to the much drier feed compared with fresh grass. Impaction is also more likely if a very coarse hay with high indigestible fibre (NDF) is fed. If the NDF is over 65, the grass was too mature and coarse at harvest and more likely to cause impaction colic. The later the hay is cut in the growing season the more likely it will be to be very coarse. However, most leisure horses and ponies with good teeth, cope very well with coarser hay as long as water is always available. Very coarse hay is also more likely to cause hay bellies and should not be fed to breeding stock.
When buying hay, it is impossible to determine nutrient content by looking at it, an analysis is preferred. Some farmers are now analysing their hay before sale, if not a basic analysis can be done, simply book it on line. This should include fibre, protein, energy and sugar.
If a nutrient analysis is not possible then a sight and smell appraisal is essential. Are there and seed heads for example? This will help determine the maturity. Ask the farmer when the hay was cut. Also check for mould, dust, and weeds particularly ragwort. The outside of bales may appear sun-bleached and weathered, yet the inside may be green and good.
Hay bales are more likely to be consistent than haylage bales as it does not rely on fermentation of individual bales within a field. Hay bales from the same field are remarkably consistent. That being said, hay from different sources and areas of the country can vary widely in nutrients depending upon time of cutting and success or otherwise of the harvest, but this also gives choice as to which is the most suitable. Hard working horses should be fed early cut, high nutrient hay whereas leisure horses and ponies needing to lose weight will be better fed later cut hay and this should also help them feel fuller.