Hay Testing

HAY TESTING: Do you really know what your horse is eating?

Research has shown that you can't tell the nutritional content of
any type of hay by its appearance. Testing is necessary if you
really want to know what your horse is consuming.

When choosing hay for horses, the common practice is to look for hay that is green, fresh smelling, not too coarse, and free of mold, weeds and foreign material. Some of us prefer one type of hay over another, first cut over second or the other way around, but if the hay we’re considering meets the basic “sense” criteria of color, smell and texture, we generally feel good about feeding it. Most of us would not think of getting an analysis done to find out what the actual nutritional value of the hay is, as we believe that if the hay looks good, it is good. However, a growing body of research is showing us that the appearance of hay is not a reliable predictor of its actual nutritional content. Coarse, yellow looking hay can be surprisingly rich, while some “pretty” hays may be lacking in nutrients. Dairy farmers have known this for years, and hay testing is therefore standard practice in the dairy industry. But while the horse world has lagged behind in this area, hay testing for horses is definitely on the rise.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of horse owners wanting hay analysis in the last 2-3 years,” says Ken Wilkinson, nutritionist for the Otter Co-op in Aldergrove, BC. “We’re testing more hay for horses, and we’re testing it in more detail.” Wilkinson believes that the greater interest in hay analysis is due to better information about equine nutritional needs and hay content coming out in the published literature. That is certainly having an impact, but in some respects, hay analysis is such a logical idea that it’s a wonder more of us haven’t been doing it all along. Says Paul Sirois, Lab Manager at Dairy One/Equi-Analytical Laboratories in Ithaca, New York, “Forage makes up the largest portion of a horse’s diet, yet it is typically the portion that owners know the least about. Ask any owner what the protein content of their sweet feed or any other purchased feed is, and I’d bet they know the answer. Ask them the same thing about their hay, and most have no clue, even though the protein content of the hay will determine which feed will best balance their horse’s diet.”

Sirois also points out that because the content of most horse hay is unknown, many horses are fed additional supplements that may not be necessary. “If people knew the nutritional value of both their hay and grain,” he says, “they’d probably discover that the supplements are not required and may in fact be throwing their ration out of balance. Forage analysis allows horse owners to do a fundamentally better job of balancing their horse’s ration.” Wilkinson agrees, but says that the main stumbling block is that many people buy hay in small quantities, making hay testing and balancing impractical. “We can’t do much in those cases,” he says, “but we encourage people to test if they’re buying a large quantity at one time. With a hay analysis, we can match supplemental feeds more closely to the horse’s actual needs without overdoing it in terms of nutrients, and also without overdoing the cost. For example, we’re using a lot less grain for horses now, as we are getting a more accurate picture of what is in the hay, and with the richer hays you just don’t need to supplement like that.”

Of course, before you would be able to plan a balanced ration, you would have to understand what the hay analysis was telling you – and what you are looking for. A complete hay analysis will show you the protein, fiber, carbohydrate, fat and mineral content of your hay, but then you have to decide whether that hay is right for your horse. This takes a fair bit of knowledge, especially as horses have different nutritional requirements depending on their age, work load, and breeding status. Certain medical conditions such as Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance (IR), laminitis and equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (EPSM) also factor in when considering what hay is appropriate for an individual horse. Whether your horse has special needs or not, it is generally advisable to consult with a veterinarian or qualified equine nutritionist to get a good idea of what you should look for in your hay, and to thoroughly understand what your anlysis is telling you.

Another benefit of hay analysis is that it allows you to correctly balance your horse’s mineral intake. According to Kathryn Watts, a highly regarded forage researcher and consultant based in Colorado, “If you have a hay analysis telling you what minerals are in your hay, you can be pro-active to prevent nutrient deficiencies that can cause health problems. While this is more important for special needs horses, like pregnant, growing or performance horses, it can be very useful to prevent problems in all horses. In certain regions, soils may be deficient in trace minerals important for proper functioning of immune, endocrine or repair mechanisms in horses. Getting a hay test can be a lot more cost effective than waiting until your horse is ill.”
It is important to note, however, that mineral balancing is far from simple and is also best done under the guidance of a qualified professional. Balancing minerals requires you to take into account the mineral content in the hay and any other feed or supplements, then determine whether or not the amounts are meeting the recommended daily requirements. Equally important is determining if the minerals are present in the correct ratios to each other, as too much or too little of one mineral can cause a cascade effect, throwing the others out of balance. It is easy to see the value of a hay analysis in this process, because if you don’t know what is in your hay, you can cause significant imbalances by using inappropriate supplements – or no supplements at all.

However, even if you don't know how to balance minerals on you own, there are certain things you can easily look for if you have analysis results. Equine nutritionists and researchers are warning us in particular to start paying more attention to the sugar and starch content of the forages we feed. In most cases, we should choose hays that are moderate rather than high in these carbohydrates. This is in part because many of today’s hays, which are grown from “improved” seed designed for the dairy and beef industries, are actually too rich in sugars to be safe for horses. There is evidence that the alarming rates of laminitis/founder and developmental disorders like osteochondrosis (OCD) we are seeing today are due in large part to overfeeding, and sugar-rich hays and grasses are a significant and often unrecognized contributor to this problem. Obesity in horses – another side effect of feeding high sugar hays – is also extremely common and is being shown to have serious, long-term health consequences. Some people will choose to simply cut down the amount of hay fed if the horse is getting fat, but new research on equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) is showing us how important it is to keep food moving through a horse’s gut as much of the day as we can. It is therefore healthier to feed larger amounts of moderate or lower sugar hay than small amounts of high sugar hay.

So what, exactly, is “moderate” when it comes to carbs in hay? Though research into what constitutes ideal levels of various kinds of sugars and starch in hay for horses is ongoing, the maximum is probably about 15% total for ethanol-soluble carbohydrates (ESC) + starch. That goes down to 10% if you have a horse with Cushing’s, IR, or other conditions that involve problems with the uptake or utilization of glucose. Many hays today test out at 18-20% or even higher; even some coarse, first cut timothy samples that most people would assume are low sugar have tested that high. Says Wilkinson, “From what we’ve seen, you can’t tell by looking at a hay whether it’s high or low in sugar. That is a concern to us. Some of the hays that we think are low can actually test very high in either true sugars or fructans or both. If we are continually feeding rich pastures and rich hays, we run into various metabolic disturbances and things like founder.”

As for protein, recommendations are generally 8-12%, depending on the stage of development, workload and breeding status of the horse. There is much debate about the health consequences of feeding excessive protein, with some saying there is no danger and others listing a myriad of consequences from excessive urination to reduced performance levels. Some people believe that the only hay that is very high in protein is alfalfa, but even grass hays can test into the 20% range depending on factors like fertilization and growing conditions. Conversely, many hays are quite low in protein and would require supplementation to bring the horse up to even the minimum 8% level. Once again, the bottom line is that if you don’t test, you simply don’t know.

However, just as all hays are not created equal, all hay tests are not equivalent, either. First of all, you need to be sure that the laboratory doing your analysis has the methodology and expertise to provide you with accurate results. Kathryn Watts urges people to be choosy about which lab they use – especially if they want to know the sugar and starch numbers in their hay. “There are different methods used for analyzing hay, with the most accurate being what is called the ‘wet chemistry’ method. This really is a more precise test, and the only one I feel comfortable using for my own horses. The technique is more problematic, so I only trust certified professional labs with a good reputation to do it accurately. There are VERY few labs even offering wet chemistry analysis for sugar and starch. Some are still using subtraction or calculation – in which you subtract crude protein, crude fat, neutral detergent fiber, and ash from the total amount of dry matter, and the ‘stuff’ left over is what they label non fiber carbohydrates (NFC). This is not a good method, because not all the stuff leftover is sugar, fructan or starch. There's also pectin, organic acids and things like glucan. The protein fraction can also get bound to the carbohydrates, making the equation inaccurate.”

One reputable Canadian laboratory that does offer wet chemistry tests for sugar and starch is A & L Canada Laboratories in London, ON (http://www.alcanada.com/). Lab manager, Rob Deakin, says that they decided to offer these tests in response to requests from horse owners. ‘We've seen an increase in hay analysis for horses, specifically from owners of insulin resistant horses and horses with Cushing's. I was contacted a couple of years ago by someone who had a special needs horse and was looking for someone in Canada they could send their hay to for sugar testing. I had not heard of Cushing's disease, but was familiar with sugar testing and it was something I thought we could offer.” Deakin worked with renowned equine nutritionist Dr. Eleanor Kellon on a test that would be standardized for these horses. “When we felt comfortable with the information that would be provided,” he says, “we offered it as an additional test with the standard forage test. I think the fact I worked with Dr. Kellon helped provide the credibility for the tests, and industry recognition.”

Choosing the right lab is definitely important, but the horse owner also has a part to play in getting accurate results, because any test can only reflect the sample you submit. However, getting a good sample is not as simple as grabbing a handful of hay and sending it off to the lab. Rather, you need to have a hay coring device – essentially a long tube with a sharp “mouth” that either punches or drills through a bale, producing a core that reflects the true leaf, stem and seed head content of the bale. You should core at least 15 bales throughout the stack, then mix the cores together and put them in a sealed plastic bag to get a representative sample of the stack. Grabbing a handful from a flake, or even from a number of different bales, generally does not produce accurate results, as you may have a handful that happens to be more stem than leaf (or vice versa), or you may lose the small bits that fall away.

Though it is still unusual for horse hay growers and dealers to get analyses done on their hay, some will allow you to take a sample and test it yourself, while the most progressive are doing the testing on their own. John and Debbie Volle, of Sunnyfield Farms in Bonanza, OR, have made growing hay that is healthy for horses a priority, and they test every cutting to provide both themselves and their customers with the facts necessary to make informed decisions. Says Debbie, “It's an education process. I believe that horse hay sugar content needs to be at 12% or below, whereas the dairymen like a high sugar content. I know that today many people suffer from diabetes and other health problems due to poor nutrition and the consumption of too much sugar, and horses are being fed too much sugar in their diet as well, with similar consequences. I want to produce a healthier hay that is low in non structural carbohydrates, and testing is an integral part of that process.”

In the end, it is up to the horse owners to educate themselves – and possibly the people they get their hay from – about what kinds of hay are best for horses, and the benefits of hay analysis. Perhaps if more people started asking growers to see an analysis, more growers would follow the lead of people like the Volles, and testing would not fall on the shoulders of individual horse owners. As Paul Sirois suggests, “Equine owners should request an analysis from their hay dealer before purchasing hay. You wouldn’t buy grain without reading the feed tag, so why should you purchase the largest ingredient in your horse’s diet without knowing its nutritional value? Dairies won’t buy hay without an analysis. Horse owners need to start demanding the same information from their suppliers.” So, ask and perhaps ye shall receive – or do the testing on your own if it seems worth your while. You may be surprised at what you’ll find out.

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