DO YOU FEED HAY OR HAYLAGE? - Understand the pros and cons of both

For many people the long winters and extended cold spells can bring with it an increase in hay and haylage costs. If you're wondering whether to swap from hay to haylage or maybe thinking of mixing the two, follow our pointers on the pros and cons of both.

hay or haylage


Many leisure riders use meadow hay for their horses but you can also get seed hay. The latter is made from grass specifically sown for the purpose of producing hay. There are usually a limited number of grasses in seed hay - some may even contain just one variety! Timothy or rye grass may be used in seed hay - so although the grass used is nutritionally valuable overall there may be a mineral deficiency simply because there is a smaller number of grasses. Seed hay is usually more expensive than meadow hay.

The fields used for meadow hay have usually been down to permanent grass but they were not specifically sown for hay. Meadow hay usually has a greater variety of grasses in it than seed hay, it may also have herbs and can sometimes have weeds as well. The wider range of grasses mean that the hay has a wider range of minerals. 

New hay

Once grass has been baled for hay certain chemical changes will take place - this is why new hay should be left for two to three months after making before it is fed to horses. You should also mix new hay in with old hay so that it can be introduced gradually into a horse's diet.

Buying off the field

This is usually the cheapest way to buy hay - even if it means you also have to load and remove the hay from the field yourself! Before you say yes or no to a consignment of hay there are certain things you need to check.

* The hay should be a good colour - it can very from green to pale fawn but the greener it is, the better.
* The smell of good hay should be pleasant - it should not smell musty or damp.
* You should be able to shake it out easily - some hay tends to stick together and is often dusty.
* When you check a bale of hay it's important to test some from the middle of the bale - it should not be damp or mouldy.
* Hay should be free from weeds, thistles, bracken - and especially ragwort. Dry ragwort is palatable to horses - but it is very poisonous, causing liver damage and death.
Soaking hay

Hay should not be soaked for hours on end as you are taking all the goodness out of it. Just 10-20 minutes of immersion in clean cold water will ensure that any spores in the hay swell and will consequently be swallowed rather than inhaled. Take your hay out of the water, let the excess water drain off and then feed the hay straight away.
Do not soak hay in freezing water in winter time. Simply take the chill off the water before immersing your hay. Do not steam hay as this reduces the nutrients and has little effect on dust and spores.
If your horse is an elderly animal, he or she will find soaked hay softer to chew. The variety of grasses in meadow hay also makes the hay more nutritious for older horses.


Just like hay, you should not use haylage within the first two months of it being made.
It's important to store haylage well otherwise the bags could be punctured eg by rats or mice or by poor handling - and the consequence of a damaged haylage bag is damaged goods inside. If haylage wrapping gets punctured then moulds and toxic bacteria can develop quickly. You MUST NOT use haylage which has been damaged - if you do you'll risk respiratory problems, colic and even botulism for your horse.

ALWAYS check the packaging. If haylage smells unpleasant eg an ammonia type smell then do not use it.
Haylage that has been made and kept well is good for all kinds of horses - there are now different types of haylage with varying feed values to cater for every type of horse and sporting discipline. It is also good for horses with respiratory problems.

Haylage has a higher water content than hay - haylage has 50-60% moisture compared to 10-15% in hay. Owing to this you should not reduce the amount of haylage fed compared to the amount of hay fed  as the horse's fibre intake will be affected - in fact you may need to feed more haylage, especially if your horse is older. Do keep a careful eye on your horse's weight - weigh tape him regularly so you know whether he is losing or gaining weight.

Haylage also contains around 10% more nutrients than hay so you may need to reduce your horse's hard feed accordingly.
Some horses can become more lively when fed haylage so be aware of this. In addition, some horses can become rather looser in their droppings. It is possible to get feed balancers which counteract any negative effects on the horse's gut.
Remember that once opened your haylage needs to be used - usually within five days.

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