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Horse eating hay

Hay and Haylage: what’s the difference?

Hay and haylage are two of the most common forms of horse feed. They’re also a vital part of your horse’s diet. But how can you ensure you’re giving your equine companion the best quality feed? And what’s the difference between hay and haylage?

Finding trustworthy information online can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. That’s where we come in. This helpful horse guide is packed with useful tips to help you make the right decision for your horse – like the best times of the year for hay and haylage harvesting, the pros and cons of each, and loads more. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s dive straight in…

Why should your horse be forage fed?

Most people believe that forage simply exists to increase your horse’s calorie consumption. But, when combined with a balanced diet, hay and haylage actually boosts your horse’s nutritional intake. High-quality hay or haylage can provide ample amounts of protein, which in turn increases your horse’s energy levels.

What’s more, horses simply love to graze! As herbivores, horses are at their happiest when left to nibble all day long. Top-quality hay or haylage satisfies this instinctive need to munch. As an added bonus, horses that graze throughout the day will naturally have fewer dental problems.

Horses grazing on hay

But, what’s the difference between hay and haylage?

Simply put, hay is dried grass and haylage is grass that is only semi-dried. Here’s a quick guide to both:

  Hay Haylage
Moisture level 80–95% dry matter 50–65% dry matter
Maturity Cut at a more mature stage Cut at a younger stage of growth
Harvesting period May–August Before mid-June
Nutrient content Nutrients lost during the drying process Higher levels of protein and lower sugar levels
Calorie level Very low-calorie A lot higher calories compared to hay

Hay is grass that’s cut at a mature stage before being left to completely dry out. Because of this, it has a very low moisture content. During the drying process, nutrients in the grass can be lost. The more mature nature of the grass, along with the loss of nutrients during the drying process, generally make it a very low-calorie snack. As a horse owner, you won’t need to worry about weight gain when using hay as a bonus feed.

Haylage is grass that’s been cut at an earlier stage of growth than hay. And instead of being left to dry, haylage is wilted. This means it has a much higher moisture content. Because it’s not put through a long drying process, haylage is able to retain more of its nutrients – particularly protein.

Hay vs haylage: which is better for your horse?

Horse eating haylage

The biggest bonus of hay is that it’s cheap to buy. Plus – if stored correctly – it will stay in an edible condition for a longer period of time than haylage. On the other hoof, hay is prone to accumulating dust. Too much dust is not good for any horse. Especially those with allergies, a lower respiratory system or horses which are stabled most of the time.

Due to its moisture content, haylage is more easily digestible. This makes it perfect for working horses, younger or more active horses, and older horses that struggle to digest hay. And even though haylage is usually pricier than hay, its digestibility means that you won’t need to rely on extra feed in the winter. Plus, haylage is dust-free, making it a good choice if your horse is allergic or has a compromised respiratory system.

However, because haylage isn’t as dry as hay, it means that your horse needs to eat more of it to receive enough fibre. Because haylage is higher in protein, it’s also higher in calories. Therefore, it’s not ideal for overweight horses or those on a strict diet. Perhaps the biggest drawback of haylage is that it can spoil easily. When storing haylage, you need to make sure that it’s wrapped adequately to prevent this.

Remember: each horse is an individual

As you can see, both hay and haylage have numerous pros and cons which need to be considered alongside your horse’s individual needs. Consider their weight, age and activity level when deciding what to feed them.

How to spot good quality hay

Hay bales

Use your senses

No, we don’t mean some weird psychic horse abilities. Just simply look at, smell and feel the hay. This is the most common (and arguably the best) way to evaluate the quality.

1. What should hay look like?

As you probably know, a good-quality hay is golden in colour. If it’s dull or brown then it should probably be avoided.

2. What should hay smell like?

When you think of hay, your first thought might not be sweet maple syrup. But actually, that’s exactly what it should smell like.

3. What should hay feel like?

You may be thinking… hay is dried grass, therefore it will feel dry? Wrong. It should be leafy, soft and flexible. If it feels coarse to the touch, that’s probably how it’ll feel in your horse’s mouth, too.

Always check for mould and dust

Top-quality hay should have zero traces of mould or dust. Dust can be harmful if ingested by your horse. Mould thrives in damp places, and contains potentially toxic spores. That’s why you should store your hay in a cool dark place.

How to spot good quality haylage

Unwrapped bale of haylage

1. What should haylage look like?

Haylage should be a bright golden colour. Basically, it should look like a damper version of hay. Bad haylage tends to be very dark. Growths – like mould – on haylage indicate that the wrap it’s stored in has been damaged. If you see any colourful bits of mould, then the haylage is spoiled and, if fed to your horse, can be extremely toxic.

2. What should haylage smell like?

Good quality haylage should smell fresh like cut grass on a summer’s day. If it smells sour, yeasty, vinegary or burnt then it’s probably gone bad.

3. What should haylage feel like?

When first unwrapped, haylage will be slightly warm to the touch. It should also feel soft and clean. We recommend using haylage that isn’t too sticky. If it feels slimy, then it was probably baled when it was too wet and is likely to go off quickly.

What else do horses need in their diet?

Apples sitting on a pile of hay

The key to a healthy horse diet is lots of fresh water and 24-hour access to grazing. If a horse doesn’t graze, they can develop gut and stomach disorders. That’s why it’s important for your horse to have access to forage – like hay and haylage. But what else do they need? Here’s some of our best tips to keep them healthy and happy…

Keep hard feed in their diet

The general rule of thumb is 70–80% hay or haylage. The remaining portion of your horse’s diet should be made up of hard feed – like cubes or grains. We recommend regularly feeding small amounts as it’s better for their digestion.

Look out for any changes in their weight

Lifestyle changes – like a change in workload, pregnancy or ageing – normally require a change in diet. Any changes to their feed must be adjusted slowly over a few weeks. If you notice any unusual changes in their weight, you should ring your vet straight away.

Stop them from putting on the pounds

Horses are naturally quite lean and strong animals. This is why they should never be allowed to become overweight. If they do, they can develop serious illnesses, particularly laminitis (an extremely painful foot condition).

Find out what makes a good horse treat

Wondering what you can and can’t feed to your horse? Check out our guide to discover the dos and don’ts of horse treats.

Hay and haylage are a vital part of your horse’s diet, so we hope this guide helped you understand the difference between the two and how to determine the quality of their feed.

Do you have any of your own thoughts on the hay vs haylage debate? Stop horsing around and share the knowledge on our Facebook and Instagram pages!

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