How many times have we heard that in our lifetime? I have noticed that joke pops out even more when folks know you have a “horse-y” background. I am always a fan of cheesy farm jokes, but one thing that horse owners are notoriously known to take seriously and not joke about is hay.

From sniffing every bale loaded into the truck to swinging magnets over bales to determine energy flow, I have heard of many ways that horse owners select hay. While I do see some validity of those selection methods as hay should be sweet smelling and trash free, the best way to really know what’s in your hay is to have it tested.

There are several companies that you can have your hay tested through; University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, Waters Agricultural Labs Inc., and even feed companies will send a representative to analyze a sample.

There is a nominal fee associated with getting your forage report, but that data is going to save money in the end because you are going to know exactly what the nutritional content of your hay is.

You may even try asking for a forage report from your supplier, as many large hay producers regularly test their forages.

Once you have your report, the quickest way to evaluate your hay are by the Relative Forage Quality (RFQ), Crude Protein, Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) and Calcium: Phosphorus Ratio values. RFQ is an indicator to help compare forage types and ranges for the specific animal management needs and TDN can be used to compare the energy values. TDN may also be expressed as Digestible Energy (DE). The chart below will assist you in determining quality value of your hay.

Forage Comparisons for Dry Hay Quality based on Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) Index, Protein, and Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN)

Forage Test Results Comparision (Dry Matter Basis)

Quality MeasurePoorFairGoodExcellentPremium
RFQ Index65-7070-8080-100100-120120 and above
% Crude Protein<8%8-9%10-11%12%13% and above
TDNBelow 52%52-54%55-57%58% or above

Now you might be asking, “What is the next step?” The next step is matching the right quality hay to your horse, because as much as we would like to feed premium hay to all our horses, not every horse requires premium hay. We love “easy-keepers” in the herd and horses that “stay fat on air” from a monetary standpoint however, be careful with your ponies and thicker crested horses in that they are susceptible to metabolic issues, founder and prone to obesity. If your horse is having little to no exercise, their requirements will be significantly less than that of a two-year old performance colt in training. How much quality difference? University of Florida Extension has some great publications on guidelines for matching hay to the horse and I included a chart that I frequently share with clients.

Guidelines for Matching Hay to the Horse

HorseType of HayVisual CharacteristicsLab Characteristics:
Crude Protein
Lab Characteristics:
Lactating Mares
Early-mid maturity
Legume or grass/legume mix hays
Leafy, finely stemmed, few seed heads/flowers>14%<34%
Yearling- 2 Years
Mid maturity
Grass, legume or grass/legume
mix hays
Leafy, medium-fine stems,
small/soft seed heads/flowers
Recreation/ IdleMid-late maturity grass hays
Late maturity grass/legume mix
Medium stems, large/soft seed
heads, flowers on legumes
OverweightLate maturity grass haysThick/course stems,
large/brittle seed heads

A few things to keep in mind when looking at this chart. A glance back at the quality chart above you’ll observe that quality grade for an overweight horse falls into the poor, fair, or good grades. That is ok! Don’t push the panic button just yet because I do not want you to immediately jump to the image of a black moldy square bale. Quality has a lot to do with the length of time between cuttings. For our overweight horses, they do not need the 4-week cut Bermuda; they can handle the 6-7 or even 8-week cuts. Additionally, you should not be feeding hay that visually looks or smells bad. Storage is a key factor when looking for mold. Best practice for hay storage would be a covered barn, off the ground, and with enough space around the outside for airflow. Poor storage and poor feeding management can lead up to 75% loss of hay; so it is important to make sure you are properly storing and feeding your hay.

Horses play a big part in our lives, and we so often want our horses to have “everything”. Trust me, I am guilty too! However, we know so much more about equine health and nutrition and now we know that we cannot give them everything that we want to give them. As always, if you have any concerns about your horse’s health, please consult with your veterinarian. They can work with you to determine a specific diet that will make your horses healthy. If you do have your forage report, share that information with your vet so that they can help you come up with a feed ration. Happy Trails!

Caitlin Jackson, Monroe County Extension Coordinator and Agriculture & Natural Resources Agent