By Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota Extension
Summer signals a new season in hay making, buying, and selling. Horse owners who have an established relationship with a hay supplier (or suppliers) likely know details surrounding where, how, and when their hay is being produced. However, Mother Nature can throw a wrench into the best plans, and some horse owners may find themselves searching for new hay sources and providers. Here are some questions, or groups of questions, horse owners can ask when purchasing hay:
Have you sold to horse owners before or do you specialize in hay for horses? How much hay do you have/bale each year? Compared to cattle, horses are more prone to health issues that can come from weather events, or poorly grown, harvested, or stored hay (e.g. dust, mold, toxic plants). Knowing how much hay the farmer produces helps ensure a consistent supply of hay. Some horse owners may need to develop relationships with multiple hay suppliers.
What is the average weight of the bales? What bale types are offered? This is very important if buying hay by the bale, which is common in the horse industry. For example, a 50-pound bale that is $6 ($240 per ton) is actually a better buy than a 35-pound bale that is priced at $5 ($286 per ton). The Hay Price Calculator app can help calculate price per ton. Not all farmers produce all bale-types (e.g. small square bales, round bale, large square bales). It’s best to ask this question up front as not all horse owners can handle and/or feed all bale types.
What species are present in the hay? Legumes and grasses have different nutrient values. Legumes, like alfalfa, tend to be higher in crude protein, energy, and calcium, and lower in nonstructural carbohydrates and fiber values compared to cool-season grasses. Being able to identify common grasses and legumes also helps horse owners spot weeds.
How mature is the hay? Along with forage species, maturity is the main driver of forage quality. More mature forages will have larger stems, flowers (for legumes), and seed heads (grasses). However, more mature forages are not "bad", rather they tend to be better suited for idle horses, while less mature forages tend to be better for horses with elevated caloric requirements (e.g. performance horses and growing horses).
Where was the hay harvested? This question helps rule out ditch hay which can contain carcasses (e.g. roadkill), garbage, and weeds.
Was the hay rained on? Rained on hay can actually be a good choice for horses with metabolic problems as it tends to be lower in nonstructural carbohydrates. However, hay that has received excessive rainfall is not usually a good option for horses.
Was the hay stored inside or under cover after baling? Hay stored inside or under cover has less storage loss compared to hay stored outdoors or uncovered.
Was the hay field fertilized and/or sprayed for weeds? Fields that have been fertilized show good management and likely a higher quality product. Weed control is important; hay intended to feed horses should have less than 10 percent non-toxic weeds. There is a zero tolerance for poisonous plants in hay intended for horses.
What is the price? Is there a price break for volume or cash? What are the payment options? These questions are important and often overlooked when buying and selling hay.
Is delivery available and if so, what is the cost? Is assistance available with onsite handling and stacking of hay, and if so, at what cost? Again, important but often overlooked questions when buying and selling hay.