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Let's Learn! All About Hay

Updated: Jan 23

Happy January everyone!

We're starting a new series here on the Team LGD blog this year:

Let's Learn!

In this series we're going to explore horse care, management, and general horsemanship topics. We'll discuss all things horse care and give you an easy place to refer back to when you "Need to Know" but don't want to deal with the Google rabbit hole.

This series will be aimed at horse-keeping in Southern California, as that's where I am and, as native Midwest girl, moving to SoCal and managing horses here was a bit of a learning curve... things are quite a bit different out here compared to how things are done in the Midwest!

Today we're talking hay...

Hay can be broken down into two basic categories:

  • Grass Hays

  • Legume Hays

Grass Hay

Grass hays, as the name implies come from different grass varieties. In Southern California, you'll most often see Timothy, Orchard, and Bermuda hay. So what's the difference?

Timothy: a perennial bunchgrass and is a cool season forage grass. It is slow growing and has a low yield in the field - hence the significantly higher price tag compared to some of the other types of hay! Timothy hay usually ranges in protein from 8% to 11%, depending on when it was cut in the season (We'll talk about what this means in a minute).

Orchard: a grass native to Europe, North Africa , and parts of Asia but has been grown in North America for more than 200 years. It is a cool season grass that grows in clumps or tufts and has a fibrous root system. It starts growth early in spring, develops rapidly, and flowers during late May or early June, depending upon the length of days and the temperature. Orchard grass is more heat and drought tolerant than Timothy grass. Orchard grass grows rapidly at cool temperatures, is very productive in early spring and recovers quickly after cutting (higher field yield = lower price tag at the feed store). Orchard grass, in my experience, usually runs a bit higher on the protein scale than Timothy at 12 to 14%.

Teff: a warm season grass, originally grown as an ancient grain from the African country of Ethiopia. In it’s native homeland, Teff grass is actually grown for the seed. The harvested Teff seed is ground and made into a large crepe like staple food called injera. As a hay for horses, Teff is very similar to Timothy in terms of nutritional content. Protein content usually ranges from 11 to 13%.

Bermuda: also referred to as Coastal grass, is another warm season grass hay, making it easier to grow in Southern states. This also contributes to it's lower price tag at the feed store. Bermuda has the lowest protein content of our hays listed at 9 to 13%. Bermuda is also higher in fiber than the other grass hays listed, especially later season cuttings. Because of the higher fiber content, it can be harder for some horses to digest.

Many horse owners believe coastal Bermuda hay can cause colic. While some survey type studies have shown an association between the two, a definitive cause-and-effect relationship has not been demonstrated. These studies mainly implicate the high fiber content of coastal hay when harvested at a later cutting. However, they do not evaluate key aspects of feeding management that could have contributed to increased risk of colic. There are also just as many studies that have not shown any association between the consumption of coastal Bermuda hay and impaction colic.

If your horse has a history of colic, just be careful if you choose to feed Bermuda hay. Transition a horse very slowly to the new hay from their old hay. I usually recommend taking about 2 weeks to gradually increase the new hay and decrease the old hay.

Legume Hay

The primary legume hay we see in Southern California (and in most of the US) is Alfafa hay.

Alfalfa: As a perennial legume, alfalfa is much "leafier" than our grass hays. You'll also often see pretty little purple flowers in your hay, too! Alfalfa is significantly higher in protein than our grass hay counterparts - usually 12 to 18% but could be as high as 20%.


Another important factor to consider is when the hay was cut in the growing season - "Cuttings". Usually, the earlier the hay was cut in the season, the "richer" it will be. This means the protein content will be higher and the fiber content will be lower. For example, first cutting hay = higher protein, lower fiber. Third cutting hay = lower protein, higher fiber.

These are generalizations. Other factors in the growing season will also affect your hay's nutritional content. This is why it is important to have your hay tested. Most reputable growers and suppliers do this. Just ask!

So, which hay should I feed my horse?!

Well, it depends... things to consider:

  • How old is your horse? Younger, growing horses need more protein than older horses.

  • How much is your horse working? Horses in heavy work will need more protein for increased muscle development.

  • Any other health issues? Horses with health issues will have specific nutritional needs. For example, do you have an older horse who has Cushings or another metabolic condition? A lower carb/sugar hay may be a better choice (think Timothy hay instead of alfalfa).

Your trainer and your vet will be able to advise you better for which hay or combination of hays is best for your horse and your situation.

Be careful taking advice from Tom or Sheila three stalls down, even though they've "had horses longer than you've been alive." Just because something works for your neighbor and "that's the way they've always done it and never had a problem" doesn't mean it is the best for your horse. Having a personal pet/hobby horse does not replace the decades of professional experience and education your vet and your trainer have. Talk to your pro team!

At Fortissimo Farm, we give our boarders a choice of Alfalfa or Bermuda hay included in their board. Other hays are also available for horses who have different nutritional needs. We purchase our hay from a reputable supplier and hay is tested regularly, so we can be as consistent as possible with our horse's nutrition.

The goal at our farm is always providing top quality care without breaking the bank. Are you in the Los Angeles area? Come visit us! We love talking all things horses and showing off the beautiful farm we get to call home!

Click here to come visit! We'd love to have you!

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