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