Producing quality horse hay 

Hay bales (U of A System Division of Agriculture courtesy photo by Dirk Philipp.)

Horses need constant forages and if a pasture isn’t readily available, many horse owners turn to feeding hay. Someone has to produce the hay and Alex Rocateli, Oklahoma State University Extension forage systems specialist, said there are a couple things for hay producers to consider when looking to grow horse quality hay. 

First, hay meadows or fields need proper fertilization. Soil samples and analysis must be done at least every third year.  

“Based on the soil analysis, proper liming and fertilization must be performed to ensure high forage yield and quality,” he said.  

Then be sure to control the weeds, as many are unpalatable and toxic to horses. Johnson grass is one of those. Avoid letting horses graze on Johnson grass at all costs. 

“Weeds tend to have inferior leaf and stem mass and mature faster than tamed forages,” Rocateli said. “Therefore, a high incidence of weeds will decrease forage yield and quality in your hay meadow.” 

Each pasture is unique, and a specific weed control program must be developed on a case-by-case basis. Rocateli said Extension agriculture educators are excellent resources for developing a weed control program. 

Cutting time also influences the quality of horse hay.  

“Horses generally excel at consuming and digesting plants in their immature to mid-growth stages, yet their ability to digest mature plants lags behind that of other livestock,” he said. “Hence, a primary distinguishing factor of horse hay is that it consists of plant varieties that have reached just enough maturity to promote intake.” 

Those plants with substantial leaf to stem weight ratios tend to have higher digestibility, and he said each forage crop has its own specific cutting time or “the happy medium point” where forage nutritive value, digestibility, and yield meet for specific livestock. 

Two of the most common types of hay fed to horses in Oklahoma are Bermuda grass and alfalfa. Producers should watch protein content as the growing season progresses. 

“The digestible protein content of bermudagrass can diminish by up to 40% when transitioning from mid-growth (three to four weeks regrowth) to late-growth hay (four to six weeks regrowth), along with a reduction of approximately 10% in digestible energy content,” he said. “From an energy perspective, paying 10% extra for mid-growth hay instead of late-growth hay typically proves to be a prudent choice.” 

Similar declines can be anticipated when going from early bloom to mid-bloom alfalfa. 

“When comparing alfalfa to Bermuda grass, you can approximate that mid-bloom alfalfa will offer around 20% more digestible energy per unit of weight compared to mid-growth Bermuda grass, along with a substantial 50 to 60% increase in protein content,” Rocateli said. 

Those desirable traits

Desirable horse hay is clean, consistent, properly harvested and attractive. 

Hay should be free from debris, dirt, dust, toxins, fungi, mold, insects, weeds or any substances that hinder digestion. Consistency is key for bales, Rocateli said. 

“Bales should exhibit uniformity in appearance concerning the types and stages of plant growth,” he said. “This applies to alfalfa, Bermuda grass, and native grasses in prairie grass bales.” 

Horse hay needs to be properly harvested and correctly cured so appropriate moisture levels can be maintained and help prevent mold from forming.  

“For instance, small square bales must be baled between 12 to 15% moisture content, while large bales should be baled at moisture content not exceeding 18%,” he said. 

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Horses have to find their hay attractive and texturally appealing, otherwise they won’t eat it.  

“This implies that stem size should range from small to moderate, with a substantial proportion of leaves compared to the stems,” Rocatelli said. 

He suggested checking out the OSU factsheet “Evaluating Hay Quality Based on Sight, Smell and Feel” at for more details. 

Other considerations

Legumes versus grass—they all come with their own sets of advantages and disadvantages, according to Rocateli. Grass hay can be categorized into two primary plant types: cool-season and warm-season grasses. Winter wheat and Bermuda grass are the most common cool-season and warm-season grasses for hay in Oklahoma.  

Legumes are typically nutritional powerhouses with higher protein, more significant percentages of easily digestible energy compared to grass hay. They can pose weight issues for those horses described as easy keepers. 

“Only horses engaged in strenuous activities, growing, or lactating necessitate legume hay’s elevated nutritional provisions,” he said.  

When choosing the kind of hay to feed, it’s important to determine the horse’s nutrient needs. Rocateli said a forage nutritive value analysis report will give the various forage characteristics including moisture levels, fiber content, digestibility, protein concentration, and mineral composition. 

These reports allow buyers to compare the nutrient content of the different hay before buying, formulate rations for horses’ dietary needs, and determine whether supplements are necessary for horse animal performance and well-being,” he said.  

For proper hay sampling, access the factsheet Collecting Forage Samples for Analysis at To properly interpret the forage analysis results, read the factsheet: Forage quality interpretation available at Finally, the factsheet Nutrient Needs of Horses, at, provides the type and amount of nutrients required by different horse classes, ages, and weights.  

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].