[Reprinted with permission from the HORSE-SENSE newsletter by Dr. Jessica Jahiel, www.horse-sense.org ]
I know you can't help with my hay problem directly, but I hope you can give me some of your wise advice. I'm not out of hay YET but I'm very worried about running low. My hay supplier couldn't get me all the hay I wanted last fall (I know, boo hoo, lots of other barn owners had that same problem) and then the problem got worse because I had to take in an extra horse in December. The winter was rough this year, worse than usual, and I've always been told to feed more hay in colder weather. I did that but now that winter is [over], my hay supply is low enough that I think I'll run out before my pastures are ready for horses.
Where I live it's usually not even possible to turn horses out until late spring or even until early summer because we have so much rain our pastures are always wet in spring and we have to keep them closed. So unless I can really cut back on the amount of hay I'm feeding every day, I'm going to be in big trouble because I have just about two months of hay left, my pastures won't be ready until (usually) the middle of May or even June, and I already contracted for next year's hay. My supplier has very nice mixed hay, grass with some alfalfa, but I always ask for second cutting which won't be available until sometime in August! Help!
I must have messed up somewhere but I didn't think that one extra horse would make such a big difference, or maybe it was the winter being so cold and all but anyway I need advice. What can I do to make my hay last longer and keep the horses healthy? My farrier says just to cut way back and give them a very skinny flake morning and evening and make the hay last longer that way. I know I don't want to do that because I know they need hay and I try to keep hay in front of them all the time. I work at home but during working hours I just can't take much time away from my job to mess with the horses, so I try to be efficient by
putting out a couple of small bales (separated into piles all over the drylot) in the morning before I start work. I often don't get out to the barn again until late afternoon and when I see that some hay has been dragged around and stepped on and pooped on it makes me angry and frustrated. I know I can't explain to the horses why they shouldn't waste hay, but I know they're wasting about a quarter of a bale every day, some days more. Please, I need advice here. My farrier says his horses do the same thing and he thinks it's because they know spring is coming and they want fresh grass so they just throw their hay around instead of eating it. Do you think that's true?
Hi Marielle! I feel your pain, truly. I didn't have an extra horse to feed this winter, but I know exactly what you mean about seeing your precious supply of stored hay diminishing with frightening speed. It sounds as if you had too many horses eating too much hay over a too-long, too-cold winter, and most of us find ourselves in that situation from time to time.
I do have some ideas for you (and I'm glad you're not taking your farrier's advice - in this case it would be far more sensible to get advice from your vet).
First, you might want to talk to your hay supplier and find out whether you can get a partial delivery - just enough to get you through a month or two - of his first-cutting hay. First cutting is generally not as popular as second cutting, and that could work to your advantage here. First cutting is often slightly less costly than second cutting, and depending on how many horses you're feeding, the lower price might offset the cost of having hay delivered twice instead of once.
Second, try to economize on the hay you have right now. Figure out the worst-case scenario: Let's say that the weather is horrible all spring, the ground is soggy, your pastures have to remain closed until June, and you have only enough hay to feed at your current rate until the end of April. You can't get through May without hay, so you're going to have to make some changes. How much hay do you have in storage? Divide that amount by the number of days between now and the first of June. How much hay can you afford to offer those horses every day?
If the per-horse amount that you can feed comes to significantly less than 20 pounds per horse, you're going to need to find more hay somewhere OR supplement the hay with another form of feed (for calories) plus another source of roughage (for chewing time, digestion, and overall health). Beet pulp (for preference, use shredded rather than pelleted beet pulp) - is one good option. You can buy it bagged, and contrary to popular myth, shredded beet pulp does not have to be soaked before it's fed.
I don't think your farrier is right - yet - although that theory may be correct later on in the spring. Right now it's hay, snow, or mud - the grass will appear later in the spring. At that point, if your horses are on drylot eating hay and smelling actual fresh grass on the other side of the fence, it's quite possible that they may begin to turn up their noses at their hay. But right now they should still be eating their hay eagerly. I suspect that there are two factors contributing to their hay-wasting behaviour. First, the worst of winter is over and the temperatures are rising. Spring may not be here yet, but it's certainly on the way. Your horses did need extra hay during the coldest winter months because the process of digesting hay around the clock is what kept them warm and healthy. Now, though, they don't need quite as much hay as they did; you can safely cut back to levels that are appropriate for more moderate temperatures (and don't forget that horses are happy and comfortable in temperatures - say 45 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit - that we humans experience as "too cold").
As you know, hay that's used to make nests or as a bathroom won't get eaten and so won't do your horses' digestion OR your budget any good at all. To minimize wastage, you're going to need to work several daily barn visits into your schedule. Even self-employed people can and should permit themselves a lunch hour and a morning and afternoon break. Even 10 or 15 minutes will be plenty of time - depending, of course, on the distance between your house and barn! Here's what I have in mind: Hungry, cold horses will eat the hay you put in front of them. Horses that are less cold and less hungry - and possibly a little bit bored - will eat the hay you put in front of them PROVIDED THAT YOU AREN'T OVERLY GENEROUS.
I'm not suggesting that you deprive your horses of hay - this is where your farrier and I disagree - but I do suggest that you offer them much smaller quantities at a time, several times a day. If you offer each horse a flake or two at a time, that hay will be eaten; if you come back in a few hours and repeat the feeding, THAT hay will be eaten. But if you spread a day's worth of hay around the drylot, only SOME of the hay will be eaten - and instead of eating what's in front of them, the horses will wander around, shaking the hay and sifting through it for the "good bits" (according to my horses, alfalfa leaves come first, and only when all of those have been eaten will they consider chewing the alfalfa stems and the various grasses). This kind of picky-choosy eating is natural and you've undoubtedly observed it in pasture as well; horses will seek out certain grasses and eat those to the ground before turning to other grasses.
Keep your horses a little bit hungry and very interested in the limited quantities of hay that you provide at any given time, and you'll see much less wastage. The time expenditure and inconvenience of going out to your barn several times a day will be more than offset by the hay you'll save - and it will also give you more opportunities to observe your horses, and just the fact that you will SEE them multiple times each day is good for their health. If anything is wrong with any horse, you'll notice the problem much sooner if you see the horses more frequently.
Consider your physical feeding strategy as well. Hay fed on some sort of surface - rubber mats, say (although you'll need to sweep them daily to keep them clean) - is generally consumed rather than trampled or flung about. Distributing hay around a drylot - or a mudlot - is a good idea, but again, if you offer too much at once there WILL be wastage. Using feeders and nets isn't the answer, though. There's a surprising amount of hay wasted when horses are fed from hayracks, haynets, or other types of off-the-ground feeders. The higher the feeder, the more wastage there will be; horses were meant to eat from the ground, not from containers at neck- or chest-level. When feeders are high, horses do a lot of hay-pulling and hay-shaking, which causes leaves and bits of grass to fall to the ground and make a mess (think of the "splash zone" around a baby's high chair and you'll get the idea). Those fallen bits of hay - often the most nutritious bits - will be wasted unless those items have rubber mats underneath them, in which case the horses will be able to spend a happy hour or two tracking down and consuming every last leaf. If you're able to shake out the flakes of hay out as you feed them, you'll also be economizing on hay because you can shake them out over the mats. Hay that's fed in flakes will typically be shaken out - sometimes quite hard - by the horses before they eat it, and when horses shake their own hay, a lot of the leaves etc. will land in far-away places, nowhere near the mats and sometimes in the water tank, in the mud, or on the wrong side of the fence.
Another strategy you can employ - this will take some extra time and thought each day until it becomes part of your routine, but it's a valuable part of any horseman's feeding routine - is to WEIGH the hay you feed your horses. If you've carefully estimated your horses' hay intake and calculated that you have enough hay for, say, 5 months, and then - at the three-month mark - realize that you barely have enough hay to get you through Month #4, it's quite possible that you've been feeding MORE hay than your calculations allowed. If you don't weigh your hay, it's very easy to hand each horse flakes that add up to (just as an example) 12 or 13 or 15 pounds instead of your planned 10-pound-per-mmeal allotment; multiply this by three or four daily feedings, multiply that by the number of horses you're feeding, and you may well find yourself looking at your hay storage area and wondering how on earth all of that hay disappeared so quickly. If your horses each NEED a total of 25 or 30 pounds of hay per day, you can (for now) stretch out your supply by supplementing with another source of roughage and another source of calories and nutrients. That should help get you through those last tricky months before pastures and new hay become available. Running more accurate numbers based on your horses' actual needs and consumption will help you make more accurate calculations when you're planning your hay order for next year.
Even if you can predict your own horses' hay consumption year-round, new horses are always unknown factors. From now on, whenever you bring another horse onto your property for any length of time, try to find out in advance whether the new addition is an economical air fern or a hard keeper that can polish off thirty pounds of hay per day and still look like a recent rescue. The more you know about the new horse, the better you'll be able to plan ahead. If you have fifty horses on your property, adding one more might not make such a huge difference, but if you normally keep only a few horses at home, adding even one more horse will have a proportionately much larger effect on your management AND your hay purchases. Let's say you have three horses and you add a fourth one - just buy one and one-third the amount of hay you would normally buy, right? Well, perhaps NOT. It sounds like a simple math problem, but it isn't. There's the above-mentioned concern (air fern? average? hard keeper?), but also keep in mind that if your operation is small, adding even ONE more horse and ONE more horse's worth of hay (and feed and bedding) will affect more than your hay order alone. When you're purchasing hay, feed, and bedding, in addition to calculating needed amounts and costs you'll have to consider the question of storage. If your storage space is limited, you'll need to factor in the number - and cost - and scheduling! - of multiple deliveries.
One final thought: If your horses are coming due to have their teeth floated, by all means call your vet or equine dentist and schedule the procedure as soon as you can. It's really quite amazing how much less hay is wasted when horses are able to chew it really well.
Good luck! And thank you, because now that you've made me think about this issue, I'm off to calculate my own hay requirements for the coming year. I too will have an extra horse on the property this year...
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