The Seven Deadly Sins of Haymaking

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By Nikki Alvin-Smith 

There is a lot more to haymaking than “making hay while the sun shines,” though doing so is a necessary start. Sadly, each year horse barns and farmers’ storage barns burn down, and horses become sick from respiratory disease and colic, as well as myriad other diseases such as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID or Cushings disease). Many of these situations are avoidable so here are, in my opinion, the seven deadly sins of horse hay-making, in no particular order.

1. Hay Moisture

Baling hay that has a moisture content of over 14 percent can be a recipe for disaster and is not recommended. Once hay is cut it will “sweat up” for approximately two to three weeks. During this time if the moisture content is too high, the risk of spontaneous combustion within the haystack is also high if the moisture content is over 14 percent.  

There are lots of tools to help you ascertain the exact percentage of moisture in your hay including hay wands and moisture testers; some balers even read every bale as they go through the machine. Yes, farms are becoming more high tech each year. If you worry that your stack is becoming too hot, contact your Fire Department. Never try to take apart a haystack that is in a combustion state, however mild it may appear, without professional help. 

A haystack that is suspected — by either smell or heat measurement — of imminent combustion can explode into fire as it is taken apart when oxygen hits gases that have built up inside the stack. 

Hay that is baled with too much moisture will also “dust.” We all know the very real hazards to horses of dusts and moulds in hay, although you may not see or smell them. The reality is that early equine respiratory issues often start with just one bad bale, and colic can certainly be a real risk from bad hay.

You can buy right from the wagons and will usually receive a discount from the farmer for doing so because it saves double handling. Just be sure to check the moisture and follow proper storage protocols. 

To avoid colic always make changes in your horse’s hay slowly. Newly cut hay is going to be much richer than last year’s cut, and if it comes from a different source or field it will also have a different makeup than the hay previously fed. The equine digestive system needs time to adjust to changes, so be sure to add just a little bit of new with the old and switch over slowly. Try and store the hay two or three weeks before feeding, to cure.

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Hay should be stored with the string side on the vertical and the cut side up to facilitate good moisture drainage. Leave at least a half inch gap between and around every bale, and criss-cross the layers in the stack to improve air flow. Photo: Nikki Alvin-Smith

2. Hay Preservatives

In order to cure hay, there are many different preservatives that can be added at time of baling and cutting. Most of these have been tested for safety with cattle but may or may not have been tested on horses.

There is some evidence to suggest that certain preservatives, while undetectable to the eye or nose, may cause respiratory inflammation in horses. As your horse spends hours with his nose in hay for much of the year, it is not surprising that he might be affected in this manner.

Why do farmers add these products? Simply put, using them saves time waiting for Mother Nature to dry the hay, and reduces dust in the hay that results as hay “sweats up” then cools down if it is baled with too much moisture. These products allow farmers to bale with more water content in the hay, which means if they sell by the ton they will receive a higher price. Many hay dealers prefer large heavy bales as they purchase hay by weight. The reality is that weight would be from water rather than tight compression of the product, or that the right compression is possible because chemical preservatives have been added to the product in the field during production. So be aware when you are buying hay that it is about more than the weight.

Related: How to Make Rotational Grazing Work on Your Horse Farm

3. First Cut vs. Second Cut

Farmers charge a higher price for second cut hay than for first cut. This is because second cut is higher in protein and depending on the type of grass it is often softer than first cut, with less variety of grasses. Many horse owners prefer second cut for this reason. The yield of second cut is often less than that of first.

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Farmers baling small square bales of hay directly onto a wagon in St. Clements, Ontario. Photo: Simply Creative Photography

It is important to check the quality of the hay you use by core sampling and sending samples out for testing so you know its protein content and nutritional value, and how it will benefit your horse’s overall diet. Too much protein is not necessarily good for horses, although for dairy cows it is beneficial as it increases milk production, and for beef cattle it adds weight. High nitrogen content in hay can cause colic and digestive issues in the equine hindgut, and high protein and sugar content can cause and aggravate PPID. 

First cut hay can be a little less soft, but it is not generally as rich as second cut. It is also more “entertaining” for horses to eat as it takes more effort to chew and thus more time to eat. Personally, unless I’m feeding a mare in late term gestation or with a foal at her side, or the horse is a high-performance Thoroughbred cross, I rarely use second cut for horses. I will use it as a supplement, but not as a main dietary source.

4. Hay Stacking

Hay needs air circulation to keep it healthy. Store it with the string side on the vertical and cut side up to facilitate good drainage of any moisture to the bottom bales on the stack. 

We always sell the bottom of the stack for mulch hay and never feed it, but some farmers can depend on turnover and storage conditions, so practical use of the base layer of the stack for horse feed is open to preference.

If hay is stored on a concrete floor, moisture will aspirate off the concrete up into the stack, so avoid that. Instead, add a layer of tarp and shavings on the surface of the concrete to help prevent moisture aspiration into the haystack. 

Leave a minimum of half an inch gap between and around every bale on the layer. Criss-cross the stack, i.e., one layer all in one direction, the other layer in the other direction, and repeat. This method of stacking improves airflow and helps mitigate the chance of spontaneous combustion within the stack while hopefully preventing it from tumbling down.

If you have a hayloft do whatever you can to increase air circulation, and obviously no roof leaks should be allowed. Throwing a tarp on top of the hay under a leaking roof will not eliminate water and will allow water entry or runoff onto another part of the stack, and undesired moisture will inevitably be present in the building.

Probably the very worst way to store hay is in a steel container because the repeated condensation of the metal sides, roof, and floor of the steel container produce moisture. If your feed merchant uses this method, beware. The front doors may be open but that won’t be enough to help maintain hay quality. 

Haylofts and older barns must be checked for integral strength in the joists to ensure they can handle the weight of the hay to be stacked. Haylofts in older structures may have been built for loose hay back in the day. Baled hay is much heavier than loose hay, and subsequent collapse of the loft floor can result if weight limits of the structure are not addressed with additional support. 

Related: How to Reduce Your Ecological Hoofprint - 21 Steps

5. Big Rounds or Squares vs. Small Squares

The small squares are naturally much easier to handle than larger units of hay and may be a little more expensive because there is so much more labour required, but overall small squares are a better choice for hay feed in my opinion.

Round or large square bales are hard to handle in the barn, though they can be easily taken to the field using a tractor with the right fork or blade and are often used for outside feeding. The wastage factor is higher for larger bales unless a hay feeder is utilized. This occurs because the outside third to half of the round bale may be poor feeding for horses due to water, mould, fungus, etc., and because the horses will trample it as they pull it out from the bale. Be careful not to use cattle feeders for horses. Foals can get legs and heads caught in them, and even adult horses can put a hoof through and get caught. Check the design carefully.

Large round bales don’t easily break into flakes, making it difficult to smell or check the bale for dead rodents or other animal tissue. This poses a real risk of botulism to your horse. During the haymaking process the equipment may run over a fawn, rabbits, birds, snakes, rodents, and myriad other critters. While coyotes, foxes and other scavengers may be around to pick off the dead matter from the windrows, round and large square bales are often produced with much larger windrows, which means the dead animal parts may not be seen and pulled out before baling.

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Hay in windrows drying in the field. Photo: Nikki Alvin-Smith

If dead animal matter is located in the centre of a round large bale, the hay most certainly won’t smell significantly enough for a handler to detect it. When small square bales are handled individually they go through many hands. The farmer and his help will notice an off-smelling bale and discard it. If you or your help pull small bales apart to feed, the flakes will fall and separate (or should if it is good hay properly cured), and you will soon detect any poor smell or visual surprises.  

6. Hay That Gets Wet

Hay that gets wet on the field may be dried and baled once it has had an opportunity to dry out. The nutrition of this hay will be diminished to some extent which will make it a poorer product, though these bales are still very suitable for cattle and pig feeding. The colour of the hay will not be as green, and may be quite brown. Personally, we never feed our horses hay that has been doused with rain and then dried; we simply mulch it or if it is baled we sell it off to a local pig farmer at a hugely discounted price. This does not mean that it is a bad thing to do; we just don’t want to feed an inferior product to our horses.

7. Time of Cutting, Types of Grass, Know the Source 

For highest “sweetness” the perfect time to cut hay is around 10 am to 2 pm on a sunny day. This is when the sugars are up in the stalk. As dusk falls the sugars in grasses return to their roots, to a large degree. This may be relevant if you run a horse rescue and have horses that are not used to richness in hay that might make them sick, or for horses suffering from PPID or other metabolic disorders.

When shopping for your own food you are likely aware of its source as much as possible; it pays to apply the same rule to your horse hay. The hay you buy should be “clean and green.” If your hay dealer delivers weedy hay, or hay that is brown, dusty, or of poor quality in general, find another source. 

There are many types of horse hay grasses and legumes, but that is a topic for a whole other article. A mixed grass bale will work best for most horses. Consult an equine nutritionist or your veterinarian about suitable hay to feed your horse.

Remember, if you are throwing hay away because of poor quality you will not be saving money because you found a cheap product. Find a good source and stick with it. A farmer values regular customers and it will be a win-win situation as he will always supply his regular customers as a priority in times of shortage.

Related: Stream Care Strategies for Your Horse Farm

Main Photo: iStock/Sean F Boggs

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