There are often times when feeding good quality hay is not practical or possible. Under drought conditions, local hay may be difficult to obtain, or the quality may not be ideal for your horse. Traveling with your horse may require you to bring your own feed, and sometimes big bales of hay are prohibitive, simply because of their volume and size. And, of course, horses with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or heaves, may be highly sensitive to dusts and moulds found in long-stem, baled hay. In these situations, hay alternatives such as hay cubes or haylage may be considered.
Hay cubes are the result of dried hay being cut up, processed and packaged into a dense cube. The cubes are typically a bit more than an inch in diameter and can vary in length (from about a half-inch to several inches). The hay stem particles can, therefore, also vary in length, but are still typically long enough to be sufficient in length to help keep the horse’s digestive tract healthy during fermentation compared to smaller hay pellets that are more finely ground and, as such, have shorter particle lengths.
The cubes are often made with a blend of different hay sources, with the producers working from analyses of the different types of hay (such as timothy or alfalfa) to create a blended hay cube that is similar in quality batch-to-batch and to allow bags of hay cubes to have guaranteed analyses on them. So, when you buy hay cubes from month-to-month or year-to-year, you can be sure your horse is getting a guaranteed level of nutrition (such as a certain amount of crude protein). Some producers may also include whole grains (like oats) and a vitamin-mineral mix to create a “complete feed” (where no other feed or supplement is needed for a horse).
Many horses do very well on dry hay cubes as the sole forage source in their diet, though those with poor teeth might not be able to break apart some harder packed cubes. They soak very well though, producing a slurry and facilitating the breakdown of the harder cubes.
Hay cubes are an excellent alternative to hay for horses that are sensitive to mould and dust. They tend to be low in dust, though fines (the small particles that break off the cubes) can result in some wastage. The overall wastage from hay cubes tends to be lower than long-stem hay, however. Additionally, they are compact and travel well.
When feeding hay cubes, because the moisture content, and, therefore, dry matter content, for hay is similar, you can feed approximately equal amounts (by weight) of hay cubes as you would long-stem hay. Since they tend to be consumed in higher quantities than long-stem hay, the cubes may be used to help sneak calories into horses with higher energy (calorie) requirements. Note that, in some cases, since the processing of hay cubes and shorter particle length leads to them being consumed faster than haylage or hay, there may be a risk for stereotypical behaviours (weaving, cribbing, etc.) to develop.
Haylage is produced from cut grass or legume plants that have been baled in plastic before being dried fully to become hay. Typically for hay production, the plant is cut and left to dry on fields until it is about 12 to 10 per cent moisture, and then baled into either large or small bales of hay. Haylage, on the other hand, is baled while the plant is at a higher level of moisture (30 to 50 per cent) and wrapped in plastic. The plastic allows for anaerobic (no oxygen) fermentation to occur within the hay, to break down some of the starches and proteins and improve digestibility. Because of the higher moisture content compared to long-stem hay, haylage has very little dust.
Nutritional quality of haylage varies widely, and depends greatly on the type of plant the haylage is harvested from – grass or legume. Quality also depends on how “clean” the haylage is, as it can be prone to mould and/or botulism. Producers who intend to make haylage and are well-educated in the practice, make excellent quality haylage with little chance of spoilage. If, however, haylage is produced as a salvage method for grass intended for hay production, but that has been rained on unexpectedly, it may be lower in quality. Commercially marketed haylage is becoming more and more common, with assurances in terms of nutritional content (guaranteed analyses) and safety. Nonetheless, because of the concern for spoilage from botulism, horses fed haylage may need to be vaccinated against botulism.
Once opened, haylage should be consumed readily, as mould can set in quickly due to the higher moisture level. In terms of feeding it as an alternative to hay for a horse with a respiratory disorder, haylage is a good low-dust solution. Because of its high-moisture content, however, it is bulky and heavy, and, therefore, may not be ideal for the frequent traveler.
Since the higher moisture content means it is heavier, horses will need to eat more haylage (by weight) than they would hay. If a horse typically eats 10kg of a hay with 90 per cent dry matter he would need to eat 15 kg of haylage with 60 per cent dry matter. Also, because of its increased digestibility, it may be “richer” in nutritional quality, and additional feeds and concentrates should be adjusted accordingly.
So, which should you feed? It depends on what your horse’s needs are. For a horse with respiratory issues, either might be a viable option. If you’re looking to find something compact and easy to travel with, hay cubes would be the way to go. Meanwhile, both can be a good addition to increase the nutritional density and quality of your horse’s diet. Regardless of your choice of forage, ensure the source is high-quality and the product is free from mould, dust and toxins. ender.tif
This year we’ll discuss the pros and cons of some common choices horse owners have to make when it comes to feeding their horses. Always be sure to discuss your horse’s diet with an equine nutritionist before making any changes.