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Buying Hay

Question: What questions should I ask when buying horse hay?

Answer: Here are some questions horse owners should ask when purchasing hay:

1. Have you sold to horse owners before or do you specialize in horse hay?

2. What is the average weight of the bales? This is very important if buying hay by the bale.

3. What crop/cutting is the hay? Helps indicate maturity; good to know.

4. What species are present in the hay? Legumes and grasses have different nutrient values.

5. Where was the hay harvested? Rule out ditch hay.

6. Was the hay rained on? Rained on hay is a good choice for horses with metabolic problems; it tends to be lower in water soluble carbohydrates.

7. Was the hay stored inside or under cover after baling? Hay stored inside or under cover has less storage loss.

8. Was the hay field fertilized and/or sprayed for weeds? Show good management and likely a better quality product.

9. What are the payment options?

10. Is delivery available and if so, what is the cost?

11. What is the price? Is there a price break for volume or cash?

12. Is assistance available with onsite handling and stacking of hay, and if so, at what cost?

13. How much hay do you have/bale each year? Helps ensure a consistent supply of hay.

Author: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Feeding Timothy Hay

Question: I heard the best time to harvest horse quality timothy hay is in the bolt phase (right before heading). The farmer has been trying to sell me hay with timothy heads; the hay is very coarse and has few leaves. Is it worth waiting until second cutting hay?

Answer: Unlike many other cool-season grasses (i.e. orchardgrass, bluegrass, fescue), timothy sends up seed heads after each cutting. Most other grasses will only send up seed heads once in spring, and once cut will remain vegetative with no seed heads. For example, it's common for first crop orchardgrass to include seeds heads, while subsequent cuttings will not. So, it is rare to find timothy hay without seed heads. More mature grasses will be lower in quality since maturity at the time of cutting dictates forage quality.

If you are concerned about the quality and coarseness of the hay, select a mixed cool-season grass hay as most cool-season grasses will remain vegetative after first cutting.

However, to lessen the chance of weather (i.e. too much or not enough rain) affecting your ability to secure hay, it is generally recommend to purchase 50% of your hay needs during first cutting and 50% during second cutting; assuming your hay supplier is operating on a two-cut system. If your hay supplier is operating on a three-cut system, purchase a third of your hay needs from each crop.

First cutting will likely be more mature (because of rapid growth in the spring) and less calorically dense compared to subsequent cuttings; however, use that to your advantage. Feed first cutting hay to maintenance horses or ponies and keep the better quality, later cut hay for horses in an exercise program or ones with greater caloric needs (i.e. growing horses, broodmares).

A forage analysis will provide the nutrient content of the hay; however, make sure to request an equine forage analysis.

By:  Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Feeding a Laminitic Horse

Diets of horses with a history of laminitis (founder) should be kept to less than 12% non-structural carbohydrates.

What treats are ok for horses?

Q: I recently received a gift of two horses, a Percheron and a Quarter Horse. These two horses grew up eating anything, including banana and potato peels, even if they've started to decay. The original owner continues to bring these "treats" over for the horses. The horses are in good health, but are overweight. Is this good for them?

A: I'd suggest your neighbor bring more typical horse treats to the horses, such as apples, carrots, or manufactured horse treats. Anything novel or not normally found in the horses diet can cause problems. If the food is slightly decayed, the possibility of the horses ingesting mold or a mycotoxin is real and could be deadly, even in small amounts.

Equally important, the risk of laminitis and other metabolic issues is greater in over-weight horses (especially the breeds you have), so for the health of the horses, the treats should be eliminated. Once your horses weight is reduced, the treats, if given in small quantities, could be reintroduced.

If the well-intended original owner understands the risk, hopefully they'll be willing to bring different treats or stop all together.

By Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Can I give rain barrel water to my horses?

Q: Rain barrels are commonly used to collect rainfall for use in watering ornamentals. What are your thoughts and concerns about using gutters and downspouts to catch rainwater in stock tanks with the goal of watering horses?

A: It is not recommend to use rain barrel water for human or pet consumption, or even for watering root crops and vegetables that will be consumed. There are potential issues with runoff from rooftops in terms of safe drinking water.

Atmospheric deposition of fine metals and particulates can be carried into roof runoff and possibly concentrated in the rain barrel water, as can petro-chemicals from shingles. New roofs can be especially prone to releasing particulates and chemicals into runoff, particularly when there hasn't been much rainfall for a while and the sun has been heating the rooftop.

In a setting where there may be birds roosting or resting on the rooftop, you can also get significant amounts of bird droppings in the runoff, and that can contain salmonella and other bacteria that can be potentially pathogenic (disease-causing).

By Barb Liukkonen, Water Resources Center, University of Minnesota

What is the ideal water temperature in winter?

Q: What is the ideal water temperature during the winter months?

A: Most adult horses weighing 1,000 pounds require a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water each day for their basic physiological needs. During winter months, water should be kept between 45 to 65°F to maximize consumption.

Waterers should be cleaned regularly, and clean, fresh water should always be available. If using a tank heater to warm water, inspect it carefully for worn wires or other damage, and check the water for electrical sensations or shocks. Snow or ice is not an adequate water source for horses.

By Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota

How do I determine selenium supplementation?

Q: I am looking for a good map detailing selenium soil levels in MN. I have clients ask about selenium supplementation and I worry about over supplementation.

A: We do not have a current map of MN soil selenium (Se) content. However, in general, the eastern half of the state has a bit more (about 80% of the feedstuffs contain somewhat greater than 0.1 ppm) Se than the western half (only 50% of the feedstuffs contain somewhat greater than 0.1 ppm).

Because the amounts of Se present in MN grown feedstuffs do not reliably meet nutritional requirements, adding Se from a mineral source, such as a ration balancer, is recommended. Most ration balancers for horses contain sufficient Se to meet the horses requirements without contribution from the hay, if fed at recommended levels. The maximum tolerance level for Se is three times the amount of Se recommended, or in the case of an 1,100 pound horse, 3 mg of Se per day. However, Se toxicity can be a real issue if that 'safe range' is exceeded.

This can easily occur if multiple Se containing supplements are used. Since the Se isn't why people usually purchase the supplement, they fail to account for total Se in the equine diet. Consequently, we tend to see more toxicity due to over supplementation than horse lacking Se. Signs of Se toxicity include dullness, roughness of coat, loss of hair, hoof soreness, stiffness and lameness

Specifically, some 'immune or energy booster' type supplements contain very high levels of Se. When multiple supplements are combined with a ration balancer, the result can be Se toxicity. This is especially the case with some owners who have the philosophy that if a little supplement is good, more is even better.

The take home message is to carefully read all supplement ingredient lists, especially if feeding multiple supplements, and calculate total daily Se intake, which should include forage, grain, supplement, and ration balancer Se concentrations. Work with an equine nutritionist if you are uncomfortable with these calculations.

By Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota

What is the vitamin content of grass hay?

Q: What is the vitamin content of grass hay? Specifically A, D, and E?

A: We are not aware of any published values for vitamins in grass hays or other forges, mostly because vitamins are generally only seen in low amounts or not at all in dried forages (hays). Plants do not actually contain vitamin A, but they do contain beta-carotene which is converted into vitamin A within the horse's gastrointestinal tract. However, beta-carotene isn't stable once the forage has been harvested, so levels decrease quickly (within weeks) until the amount left is insufficient to meet a horse's nutritional needs. Consequently, vitamin A should be supplemented when horses are fed harvested forages. Vitamin A is known for its role in night vision.

Vitamin D plays an important role in calcium absorption and similarly to vitamin A, the active form of vitamin D is not found in plants; however sun-dried forages tend to be good sources of the vitamin D precursor, which is later converted in the skin (after ultraviolet irradiation) and in the liver and kidney to the bioactive form. Hays tend to be good sources of the vitamin D precursor although there can be variations in the content of forages and the precursor will deteriorate over time in storage. Horses with normal sun exposure do not usually need additional Vitamin D supplementation.

Vitamin E is a best known for its antioxidant properties and is readily found in fresh forage, but levels quickly decline upon hay processing and storage. While extra vitamin E would have been stored in the liver of the horse that was consuming fresh forage during the summer, the levels are depleted in the fall when the horse is fed hay that has insufficient levels. Consequently, vitamin E should be supplemented if horses are fed a diet consisting mostly of dried hay. Generally, naturally derived sources of vitamin E have higher biological activity than do chemically synthesized sources.

By Krishona Martinson, PhD, and Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota

What is the harvest restriction on Roundup?

Q: Last fall, we did a 'burn down' on some hay ground using Roundup. We have a buyer for the hay, except the buyer heard that you should not feed hay that's been sprayed with Roundup, unless harvest was 6 weeks post application. Is this true and why?

A: There is usually a 4 day to 8 week harvest restriction on glyphosate (Roundup). Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and there are many formulations and companies that produce a glyphosate product. The range of 4 days to 8 weeks depends on the herbicide formulation; you must read the label to find this information.

Glyphosate is a slow acting herbicide that is translocated throughout the plant. The harvest restriction allows time for the herbicide to dissipate from the forage. If hay is harvested before the recommended harvest restriction, the harvest is 'off label', illegal, and not recommended. If the harvest restrictions were followed, then the hay is safe for horse or livestock consumption.

In Minnesota, we have seen both environmental (contaminated manure) and animal health issues with other herbicides when the grazing and harvest restrictions were not followed. It is important to read and following the entire herbicide label prior to making an application.

By Krishona Martinson, PhD, and Julie Wilson, DVM, University of Minnesota

Should hay be stemmy or soft?

Q: I was reading an online forum and they were discussing hay. A couple people posted how a horse needs stemmy, coarse hay to keep from colicing. They said soft, grassy hay will make them colic. I always thought soft, grassy hay was good for horses. What should I do?

A: There are numerous things that cause colic, but good quality hay is usually not one of them. Both stemmy and soft hays can be considered good quality; given both are free of dust, weeds, and mold, and should not affect the incidence of colic. Stemmy hay is usually more mature with less energy and nutrients and can be a good choice for adult, idle horses, or horses that need to lose weight. Softer hay is usually more immature and leafy with higher energy and nutrients levels. This hay is usually ideal for horses with a greater demand for energy like working, reproducing, and young, growing horses. In fact, a diet high in forage usually reduces the incidence of colic compared to diets high in grains.

Low quality hay that is dusty or moldy can increase the chance of colic. Overly coarse hay has been linked to impaction colics, and soft hay might cause colic if horses overindulge or a shift to a softer, more digestible hay is made abruptly. When making any feeding changes, the changes must be made slowly, this includes changing forage types.

If you are concerned about the incidence of colic, speak to your veterinarian and ensure your horse is in good health. Causes of colic can be unexplainable, but a diet high in consistent, quality forage should pose a limited risk of colic.

By Krishona Martinson, PhD, and Julie Wilson, DVM, University of Minnesota

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