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The Messed Up Marketplace that is Horse Hay Shopping

A local forage grower hung up on me this week. What did I do to deserve the auditory middle finger...I asked if by chance he had done a forage test on the hay that he claimed, in one breath, was "low carb", "low potassium", and "high in selenium". Obviously this 76 year old man who has grown hay for 40+ years had been assaulted with too many questions too many times before as he knew all the right buzz words. Sadly, I've come across this all too often in my equine nutrition career. Forage growers making product claims without proof! Hell, I've seen feed stores advertise "low carb hay" on their billboards and then be unable to produce a forage test to confirm it! My horses, luckily, do NOT suffer from disease, but what do owners do who have horses with chronic laminitis, devastating myopathies, poor dentition, or metabolic disease?!? What if you're an equestrian facility that buys 100 ton a year for a demanding clientele? Why must we be afraid to ask for a forage test from our hay suppliers?

Are you scared to ask your hay grower, feed store, or barn owner for a forage test? Have you done a forage test yourself? Do you buy your hay based on color, smell, and bale size rather than an analysis of nutrient content? Trust me, if you answered YES-NO-YES, you are not alone. Nay- you are the norm.

I was lucky to find a local grower with good quality hay (aesthetically speaking) that could load the bales with machinery this summer. He had supplied my parents with horse hay for 25 years, so our connection made the purchase easier. No forage test though.

My interaction with this hay grower actually has worse consequences for me than it does for him, and that is the really messed up thing. Small square bales are rare in Southwest Montana. So rare that many horse owners horde hay like most girls horde shoes. A mass clamber occurs every summer during hay season to stack as much hay as possible into the barn and pray that the winter isn's so long and harsh as to run out! If you fail to stash, like I think I may have done, you're left scrambling at the bottom of the barrel, traveling long distances, and generally at the mercy of whomever has something mold and dust free no matter the price.

In 2020, I purchased 12 ton of hay at an average price of $220 per ton- that's $2,640 dollars (not including fuel and labor) and 24,000 pounds moved by hand twice! Considering the cost and literal back breaking labor, shouldn't I have the right to know what I'm getting? Every expensive feed and supplement that I add to my horse's diet is based on the assumption that it's NOT in the hay. How can I be certain that I'm creating an optimum diet for my horse's performance and overall health without real information?

There are very few assumptions that we can make about forage just by looking at it. Doing most consults remotely over the phone, I ask horse owners to take pictures of their horse's primary forage, and can make the following broad guesstimates...

  1. Relative caloric density due to grass maturity and species

  2. Relative protein quantity due to grass maturity and species

  3. ...and that's it!

List of assumptions that I can NOT make just by looking at a forage...

  1. sugar/starch content

  2. vitamin E content

  3. palatability

  4. iron content

  5. selenium content

  6. potassium content

  7. actual caloric value

  8. protein quality

  9. lysine content

  10. antagonists

Miso doesn't care the species or nutrient value of the hay either.

Please understand that my frustration stems from an intimate personal and professional relationship with the forage industry. I've been very interested in the forage-horse industry relationship for a long time. I recognized the disconnect early in my career when I realized how little horse owners knew about the greatest part of their horse's diet and how difficult it was to learn more. I also realize that growing forages is a noble art form! I've been on hundreds of hay farms. I've interviewed dozens of growers and helped them sell their products across the U.S. I've spoken at multiple regional and national forage conferences and written articles for more than one journal on horse hay needs. I consider multiple state forage agronomists friends! But this week, our collective equestrian frustrations got more personal.

Our fear is a symptom of a larger, more systemic problem in our equestrian industry that I'm calling market failure. A definition for market failure is "the individual incentives for rational behavior do not lead to rational outcomes for the group" (, 2021). If horse owners were rational, we would not buy thousands of dollars worth of very heavy product without knowing what we're getting. Until we, the horse owners of the world, start collectively asking for forage tests before every purchase, it will not become the norm. But considering how expensive it is to keep and feed horses these days, we must go there. We must stop guessing about what's in 99% of our horse's diet. The forage industry needs to step up.

I've heard ALL the excuses for not getting a forage test done; we go through it too quickly, it's gone before we can get the results back, horse owners don't ask for it, it's too expensive, I don't have a forage probe, I don't know where to send it, I don't know how to interpret the results. If you're a hay grower that has made it this far through the article and you're getting upset, then call me. I'll help pay for your forage test and teach you how to sell it to horse owners at a profit. If you're a horse owner out there wondering how to get a forage test done, call me and I'll step you through the entire process! It's so much easier than you think.

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