Hay Bales: Marketing hay for horses

Mike Trammel, ag educator and multi-county agronomist
Pottawatomie County Extension Service

Marketing horse hay is just a different business. Ask horse owners what is important when it comes to choosing hay and most will say quality is important, but good quality horse hay can be difficult to define and there are no measures of exactly what it should be. In general, when marketing horse hay, a person is marketing to the horse owner, and the owner has certain vague notions of what makes good horse hay. Several important factors to remember when buying or marketing horse hay include mold or moisture, maturity, cutting/harvest date, smell, color, and storage/bale type.

First, the absence of mold may be the most important criterion of good horse hay. Horses cannot tolerate eating or breathing mold and mold spores to the extent of most other classes of livestock. If hay is dried quickly, never allowed to get wet, and baled properly there is little likelihood mold will be present. Another important concern when it comes to a horse owners mind when purchasing hay is blister beetles. Blister beetles are black, elongated insects that are attracted to and feed on the flowers, pollen and leaves of blooming alfalfa and weeds. Developing beetles feed on grasshopper eggs, so blister beetles are often found in alfalfa produced in arid southern states and plains states where grasshoppers are more of a problem. Blister beetles naturally produce a compound called cantharidin. The level of cantharidin produced is highly variable and released when the beetle is crushed during hay making. Cantharidin remains toxic in dead beetles and the level of toxin does not decrease during hay storage. Symptoms in horses include sores or blisters on the tongue and in the mouth, colic, straining, increased temperature, depression, increased heart and respiratory rates, dehydration, sweating, diarrhea, bloody feces, and frequent urination. Consuming a small number of blister beetles can make a horse sick, and a large number may kill a horse. If cantharidin poisoning is suspected, contact your veterinarian immediately. There is no specific antidote beyond supportive care, which includes mineral oil, intravenous fluid therapy, activated charcoal and analgesics. 

Avoiding blister beetles in alfalfa hay can be accomplished, to a certain extent, by feeding first-cut hay (May or earlier) or last-cut hay (October or later) because few, if any, blister beetle swarms are present at those times. Hay color is also a consideration when it comes to purchasing horse hay. Most horse owners want green-colored hay for horses, but a green color is only a fair indicator of hay quality. Bleached hay indicates exposure to sunlight or rain, and can mean vitamin A has been lost, but other important nutrients may be present in bleached hay. Finally, whether marketing or purchasing horse hay, we need to consider the packaging. Packaging is big issue with many horse owners and rightly so. Hay producers should be aware of this when making “horse hay”. Small rectangular bales are the easiest for horse owners to move and transport especially when traveling to and from events. This is a convenience to the person feeding the horse.  Large bales (rectangular or round) may also contain good horse hay as well. However, convenience to the person feeding and transporting the horse is paramount and small squares fit the bill. They are also easier to inspect flake by flake, for the presence of mold, blister beetles, or toxic plants. So, the next time you are marketing hay as “horse hay” be sure to take these points into consideration.

If you have questions concerning this topic or related topics, please contact the Pottawatomie County OSU Extension Center at 273-7683, stop by the office, or visit our website: http://www.oces.okstate.edu/pottawatomie/

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