Monday, 10 September 2012

Hay or Haylage: What will your choice be this winter?

Hay or Haylage? What will it be?
Image courtesy of Hannah Briars

The horses’ digestive health relies on suitable fibre intake and consequently forage should account for the largest portion of the horses’ diet (never less than 50%). Despite its importance, forage is often overlooked or misunderstood, resulting in conflicting beliefs. This can make it hard for owners to make the right choices when it comes to their horse’s forage.

One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to forage, is the belief that you should feed less haylage than hay. In fact, due to the higher moisture content (nutrients are diluted in water); you generally need to feed more haylage to ensure sufficient fibre intake (approximately 1.5 times more by weight).

Haylage can be higher in nutrients than hay but in truth, forage analysis is the only way to guarantee the nutritional value of either hay or haylage; regardless of its age, the cut or physical appearance.

When it comes to hay, owners often contact me following conflicting advice on soaking and steaming. Soaking for respiratory conditions such as RAO (Recurrent Airway Obstruction, formerly referred to as COPD) causes dust particles to swell, ensuring that they are ingested rather than inhaled. Studies have shown that whilst soaking for 10 minutes reduces dust particles; steaming is most effective for improving hygienic quality (reduces dust and mould particles).

For laminitics, forage should ideally contain less than 10% water soluble carbohydrate (WSC – sugar plus fructan), but many samples of hay that we analyse contain close to 20%, sometimes more. Although unable to guarantee safety, soaking hay for 12-16 hours in tepid water can reduce the WSC by up to 50%. Alternatively, consider a low sugar hay replacer approved by The Laminitis Trust.

Understanding forage is key to making the best decision for your horse. As summer draws to a close and our thoughts turn to winter, what will your choice be?