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The question of how long to wait before feeding freshly-baled hay always provokes debate among horse owners. Some believe that you should leave hay to “settle” for at least six weeks. Others argue that you can use bales directly from the field with no ill effects. So who is right?

Perfect timing
According to Gemma Stanford, head of welfare at the British Horse Society (BHS), it is safer not to feed new hay immediately.

“You should ideally aim to wait a minimum of six to eight weeks before feeding newly-baled hay to your horses,” she says. “If the cut was of a particularly good quality, the nutritional content will be higher and it may need to be left longer before being fed. It is sensible to introduce anything new into a horse’s diet slowly, especially horses prone to digestive problems due to changes in feed. That includes new hay.”

Leaving hay for a minimum of six weeks before feeding is a good rule of thumb — but Charlotte Evans, technical manager at the British Grassland Society, says that the really important factor is moisture content.

“You can feed hay made under good conditions from when it is baled right through to when you notice it going off,” she explains. “This means hay that has been baled at a moisture content of about 15-20% and no higher. If the hay is still drying when baled it can cause problems with colic.”

If you’re making your own hay and are unsure of when to bale, Martin Holden of Southern Hay and Haylage suggests testing the stems.

“Bite the stems — if they are still crunchy, the hay needs to dry out some more,” he says. “If the stems feel dry to the bite, then the hay is ready to bale.”

Quality control
Identifying good-quality hay is largely a matter of common sense.

“Hay at its best smells appealing to us as well as to horses,” says Charlotte. “It should look clean and bright, greenish to light yellow and smell slightly sweet and fresh.”

If your hay has been stored in a dry, undercover environment away from direct sunlight and with enough space for the air to circulate around the bales then it should last for 12-24 months.

Martin says that the key signs of off hay include “a lot of dust when the slices are separated, a musty smell and mould, which can develop if the hay has been baled when the moisture level is too high”.

If in doubt, he advises using a moisture metre and discarding old bales that register readings of above 20%. Alison also suggests having a nutrient analysis performed on your hay, particularly if you have competition horses or breeding stock.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (25 September 2014)

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