With more hay-producing land being taken over by farmers producing much higher-priced cereal grains, or even real estate developers, hay producers have been forced to look for cheaper land. As a result, more and more horse hay is being grown in road ditches, low wet meadows, and swamps. This land is usually free to the hay producer, and he will not spend any money on good fertility or quality management practices.
Some of this “road kill hay” is made in small, square bales, but most of it is baled in large, round bales. It is a lot cheaper to make round bales and the horse hay buyer will not see what is in the middle of the bale. Most horse hay buyers cannot tell the weight of a round bale and go on the assumption that a “bale is a bale” Round bales can vary from 300 to 2,000 pounds per bale.
When a horse hay buyer asks the price of a bale, he rarely asks what it weighs. Hay producers have figured out that a 400-pound bale brings the same price as a 2,000-pound bale. Hay producers that sell a 400-pound round bale for $40.00 will get $200 per bale for a 2,000 bale if it is made into 400 bales.
Inside A Round Bale of Ditch Hay
Ask yourself, “Would I feel good about feeding my dog, cat, or horse dead skunks, raccoons, gophers, deer, etc., from the road side?” Many of these dead animals and animal parts will be raked up into ditch hay and may be included in your next bale, so think carefully. These dead animals are high-protein, high-fat red meat, but, of course, this type of diet is very difficult to balance nutritionally, and for other obvious reasons, is risky to feed any pet.
First, ditch hay is not fertilized, thus it will be very low in protein and energy. Before it is baled, the hay will be raked into a windrow. This is the most efficient way of cleaning up the debris that people throw into our road ditches. Chemicals from vehicles or discarded chemical containers are thrown into our road ditches. In addition to normal ditch grasses, many of the plants in road ditches are broad-leaf noxious weeds.
It is easier to detect and remove debris and weeds in small square bales, but square bales are more costly to make.
Second, Nutritionally, ditch hay will be grasses and will have a protein level around 5–7 percent. Good upland alfalfa-grass mixed hay will be about 15–20 percent protein. The energy or calorie levels of ditch hay will be about one-third that of upland horse hay. Ditch Hay is low in protein, which can result in muscle atrophy. Good protein is needed to produce good muscles in a horse. It is also needed to maintain muscle in your horse. I have heard of and seen a lot of toplines declining in today’s horses—the result of low-protein diets.
Finally, a pound or two of magic pellets will not make up the difference between good-quality alfalfa and grass horse hay and low-quality ditch hay. You must do your due diligence and buy wisely.
When we own horses and confine them, limiting them to eating only what we feed and controlling the amount and type of exercise they get, we have the responsibility to feed a healthy, nutritious diet, and do the research necessary to achieve this goal.
With all the time, effort, and money horse owners invest in their favorite pet, why not invest as much developing a good feeding program? There is a lot of good horse hay in the marketplace and finding that good source is the first step. The second is to ensure that all the nutrients that you purchase in that good bale of hay get into your horse.
Your horse depends on you for the opportunity to live a good life and that starts with fresh air, exercise, and proper nutrition.
Harlan Anderson is a fourth-generation farmer (on the same farm). He has been operating the family farm for over 45 years. He has a special interest in raising forages and conservation. He is also a licensed veterinarian and has been actively practicing for more than 40 years. He has a special interest in equine and ruminant health. He has spent the last 15 years working with Land Grant University’s, researching better nutrition for horses. His wife is a retired Extension Educator. He has two sons with degrees in engineering ready to take over the family farm.