Nutritious, high-quality hay is important if you want your hay burner to be healthy, says Steve Jones, associate professor/equine specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

Hay is the most common form of forage fed to horses. Quality is important because it determines how much value the horse can get from the hay.

Horse owners may be tempted to buy low-quality hay because of its bargain price, “but it’s not a bargain if it’s nearly indigestible to the horse, if they refuse to eat it or if it makes them sick.”

The trick to producing a nutritious hay product, Jones says, is to make sure it has been cut at the right maturity. The highest quality hay will have more leaves than stems and few seed heads or flowers. It will feel soft to the touch.

“Horsemen often put high value on a green hay color. But in Arkansas, color is not a reliable indicator of hay nutritional quality.”

In the intense Southern sun, hay bleaches quickly, but still may have excellent nutritional value, while overmature, poor-quality hay baled under different conditions may still be bright green. Also, bales often bleach and weather on the outside, yet retain green color inside.

The only sure way to know if your hay is high quality is to take a sample and have it tested in a laboratory.

Ideally, samples should be obtained from 20 bales using a hay-coring device. If a hay corer is not available, open the bales and take a handful of hay from the center. Mix them together in a large paper sack and send the entire sample to the laboratory.

“The UA Agricultural Services Laboratory in Fayetteville, Ark., provides testing, and samples can be sent there directly or through your county Extension agent,” Jones says.

Another crucial part of quality hay is cleanliness. Hay should be free of dust and mold — the leading contributors to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“When evaluating horse hay for potential feeding or purchase, break open several bales and look at the interior.” The hay should have a clean, fresh smell — never moldy, musty or dusty. It should be a uniform green color throughout.

“Quality hay is also free of weeds, sticks, pine needles, small dead animals and insects and trash.”

Here are other tips from Jones about feeding hay:

Trash is frequently found in hay that was baled beside a road. Horses will pick most of it out of the hay, but may accidentally consume dangerous pieces of trash.

Horses kept outside can be fed hay from large, round bales. Round bales are most effective when there are enough horses to eat an entire bale within a few days.

Hay for pastured horses can be fed on the ground if the soil is not sandy.

Small square bales are more convenient for feeding stabled horses. Large round bales are less expensive per ton, but they require equipment to move them.

Hay prices should always be compared on a per ton basis rather than per bale.

Dense, properly made, round bales shed rainwater and can be stored outside if they’re raised off the ground. Covering bales with plastic can help reduce spoilage.

Hay exposed to the elements by sitting on damp ground or being exposed to rain will weather and form a moldy outer layer. The interior will remain nutritious.

For more information about horses, contact your county Extension agent or visit www.uaex.edu and select Agriculture, then Horses.

e-mail: ljames@uaex.edu