As Hay Prices Soar Forage Alternatives Become more Compelling

For the first time in seven years my hay supplier is flat out. It’s a problem here in New England. It will be several months before the first cutting is in and my horses, at least, don’t have enough grass to sustain them.

The good news is that hay is available, but the price is high. Right now decent (not great) 2nd cutting is about $10 for a square bale that weighs about 50 lbs. Delivery is extra. The combination of a poor growing season last year and the high price of gas has just made prices spiral upwards.

My horses get no grain (just a ration balancer), so their diet is forage based. They each eat about 25 lbs of forage per day, so it’s running me $10/day in hay. Just a few years ago the same hay was $4/bale — quite a difference!

In anticipation of the hay shortage, I started hoarding hay over the winter. I only have room for about 150 bales, but I filled my loft with beautiful second cut hay when I could and started supplementing their hay with forage alternatives. In my quest to make my hay last I looked at chopped hay, hay stretcher, hay cubes and beet pulp.

Chopped hay is forage that is dried at high temperature, chopped and bagged. In the past I’ve fed Totally Timothy, by Lucerne Farms. Several of their feeds — including this one — are blended with a low sugar molasses, although they recently introduced one that is molasses free. I tried it because one of my horses has a dust/mold allergy and was really suffering one spring. I also had a mare who didn’t eat much hay but was a hard keeper and I wanted to encourage her to eat more forage, rather than continually increasing her grain.

This was a total taste test winner, according to my horses. They would walk through fire for Totally Timothy — they like it that much. There is a lot that I liked about it, too.

  • The nutritional content is excellent and consistent.
  • You feed slightly less than regular forage (1-1.5% of body weight if it’s the only forage), so a 35# bag is the equivalent of 50# of hay.
  • There is no waste. The horses don’t leave a shred.
  • It is completely dust free (which helped my allergy-prone gelding).
  • It can be easily mixed with grain to provide a fiber supplement.
  • Chopped forage provides the long-stem fiber that horses need for their digestive systems.
  • It’s easy to transport and store as it’s bagged.

Ingredients are: dehydrated chopped timothy hay, cane molasses, and proprionic acid (preservative).

The nutritional profile is:

Protein: 7%
Fat: 1%
Fiber: 30%
Calcium: 0.3% min; 0.5% max
Phosphorous: 0.1%

The disadvantages that I’ve found are that 1) it’s expensive and 2) the horses eat it quickly. They finish off their ration in short order and that deprives them of the entertainment factor of heating their forage throughout the day. I prefer them to nibble for several hours, especially as one of my horses tends to crib or weave when he doesn’t have something to eat.

Hay Stretcher pellets were recommended by my vet as a way to keep weight on a horse without providing unnecessary energy. I buy hay pellets from Blue Seal and feed them to my horses with their ration balancer, to make them feel like they’re getting a meal, and in an outside feeder as a supplement to their hay.

Hay Stretcher is a large pellet with a nutritional profile similar to grass hay, but slightly lower in fiber and higher in energy. You can use it to replace up to one-half of your horse’s total forage needs, substituting it on a pound-to-pound basis. It is not fortified with any vitamins or minerals so is not a replacement or a complete feed.

Currently I feed about 4 lbs of hay stretcher daily to each of my horses, but as my “real” hay supply dwindles, that might increase. It is highly palatable to them and they always finish it up. It has many of the benefits of chopped forage:

  • Pellets are easy to feed and palatable
  • There is no waste when it’s fed
  • The nutritional profile is consistent
  • You can feed it dry or soaked (it does get mushy when wet)
  • It’s easy to transport and store

The disadvantages are that 1) it is not a long-stem forage so it does not provide the digestive fiber that horses require and 2) it is pricey (not as expensive as chopped forage but still more than hay), and like chopped forage, horses eat it quickly. I’m currently paying $12.95 for a 50 lb bag.

Ingredients: Dehydrated Alfalfa meal, Wheat middlings, Oat Mill by-products, Cane Molasses, Calcium Carbonate.

The nutritional profile is:

Protein: 11.5% min
Fat: 2 %
Fiber: 20%
Calcium: Min. 0.80 – Max. 1.30
Phosphorous: Min. 0.45

Beet pulp is another good source of forage. It is the fiber that is left over when sugar is extracted from beets. It is high in fermentable fiber and easy for horses to digest. In fact, beet pulp is an ingredient in many commercial horse feeds (Purina Ultium and Blue Seal Vintage Victory, for example), but it can also be fed separately.

Beet pulp is available either in shreds or in pellets. Much of it has some molasses in it, but it is also available without it. Typically beet pulp is fed soaked, although, contrary to rumor, most horses can eat dry beet pulp without problems. There’s a lot of debate and misinformation about beet pulp (for example, it does NOT expand in a horse’s stomach if fed dry), but it is a feed that can cause choke in horses that eat quickly or that or prone to it. Another myth is that beet pulp is high in calories and can be used to help put weight on hard keepers. In fact, beet pulp has fewer calories than the equivalent weight in oats and only slightly more calories than good quality hay. Since you measure/weigh beet pulp dry, you would need to feed an awful lot of it to really add significant calories. Beet pulp can be used to replace up to 50% of a horse’s total forage needs.

Benefits of feeding beet pulp include:

  • Excellent source of digestible fiber.
  • Low in starch and sugar.
  • When soaked also helps hydrate horses, which is particularly useful in winter.
  • Can be mixed with complete feeds.
  • Excellent way to “hide” supplements or medications when served soaked.
  • Low cost.
  • Beet pulp shreds can be soaked, or moistened, in 10 minutes if warm water is added.

The disadvantages of beet pulp are that 1) Soaking takes extra time and effort (not all barns will accommodate the request); 2) some horses find it unpalatable, and 3) in the summer, beet pulp will ferment if left soaking for too long.

Nutritional profile:

Protein: 9.5 -10 %
Calcium: 0.8%
Phosphorous: 0.5%
Sugar: 10 % average
Starch: 1.3% average

Finally, there are hay cubes. They are generally available as either alfalfa or alfalfa/timothy but I’ve also seen cubes that were alfalfa/beet pulp. They are made from hays that are either dehydrated or sun cured. They provide long-stem fiber and have similar nutritional profiles to conventional hay. Many people soak hay cubes before feeding them, but unless your horse is prone to choke, that isn’t necessary. However, soaking the cubes does help with hydration and allows them to fed to horses that have difficulty chewing.

The advantages of feedings cubes include:

  • They can be fed as a replacement for long-stem hay on a pound per pound substitution.
  • Reduced waste. While horses will sort through long-stem hay and inevitably leave some, horses tend to finish all of their hay cubes. In fact, it’s important to limit hay cubes (rather than feed free choice) as a study that measured consumption showed that horses fed cubes consumed 17-25% more cubes than long-stem hay.
  • Low dust. Hay cubes generally have little to no dust making them good for horses with respiratory problems or allergies.
  • Consistent nutrient profile. You always know what you are feeding.
  • Easy to handle and store as it’s available in 50# bags.
  • When fed dry, horses eat them slowly.
  • When fed soaked, they are an excellent way to hydrate horses or feed supplements or medications.

The disadvantages associated with feeding cubes are 1) they are expensive. I am currently paying $14.95 for a 50# bag of alfalfa/timothy cubes; 2) you need to limit consumption as horses will eat too much of them; and 3) if your horse is prone to choke, they need to be soaked before feeding.

I have not put a nutritional profile for the hay cubes as it will differ depending on they type of hay they are made from.

All in all, I’ve found that feeding forage alternatives has been a successful way of extending my hay supply. While they all do cost more, on balance the difference is not as much as the price tag would suggest as the horses consume all of their Hay Stretcher and hay cubes without any waste.

Additional Resources:

3 thoughts on “As Hay Prices Soar Forage Alternatives Become more Compelling

  1. I just read this entry about forage alternatives in winter. Then I noticed it was from 2008 – but it holds true for every winter in my area as well. It was the right blend of science and commentary. Some of what I’ve read on this topic gets so technical that my eyes glaze over and all it does is confuse me! This was just right. Thank you!

    1. These past few winters it sure has held true! When I first started buying hay here it was $4/bale. Now we’re lucky to get the same size bale for less than $8. I’m going to write an article this week about feeding for warmth which will also touch on hay alternatives. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hi, I read your article with great interest, and I like you have had horses in our families for generations. It amazes me when I hear that people actually believe the sugar beet is good for their horses?? I’ve never, and I never will feed my horses sugar beet, not only is it nutritionally poor, but the chemicals involved to process it is a massive no, no. , and like you I agree that if you can not afford to feed a horse naturally, then do not own a horse. I feed mine alfalfa and carob and other legumes with oranges, apples and other fruits and veg as treats. They also graze unfertilised grass and pick at the hedge groves, and I’ve never had a problem with any of my horses ever!! Another thing to bear in mind about sugar beet, is, it actually weaken the bones and it is also terriable on the teeth! When people look at my veterans they seem to be amazed that they still have teeth??, but when you explain why your horses are in good condition it falls on deaf ears because for some reason they seem to think if you feed a horse naturally it will cost more??. They seem to forget about all the vet bills they have with their problem horses. Outstanding article, and extremely well said….

Leave a Reply