Many people use a visual inspection to get a good idea of the quality of hay they have. There are many different things that one needs to pay attention to when visually inspecting the quality of hay. The first thing you need to check is the type of hay, for example alfalfa, grass, etc. This can tell a lot about the nutritional value of the hay. Legumes (alfalfa, clovers, lespedeza etc) have rounded or pinnate leaves and are higher in protein and minerals than grasses (orchardgrass, bromegrass, timothy, tall fescue etc) which have long, narrow leaves. Some other things that need to be observed are the color, leafiness, presence of mold and/or dust, odor, and presence of weeds.
You should also know what type of hay to feed to what kind of horse. A gelding that gets ridden a few times a year does not need to eat top quality hay. He simply needs a high enough quality hay to maintain his body condition. A horse that is in heavy training will need higher quality hay as this horse’s nutritional requirements are higher than a horse that is in little or no training. As the level of work a horse is asked to do increases, the quality of hay that horse is eating should also increase. Correctly feeding your horse the hay it needs according to its activity level could save you a lot of money. One point to remember is to avoid hay containing endophyte-contaminated tall fescue when feeding pregnant mares, especially when they are in the last 90 days of their gestation.
Good quality hay will be green in color. Some reasons that the hay losses its color could be that it got rained on or it is older. The loss of the green color from age does affect its nutrient makeup as Vitamin A and other vitamins will be lacking. Leafiness of the hay can sometimes help to distinguish if the hay had been rained on before it was baled. Hay that has been rained on and also hay that is too dry and brittle will have less leaf material and is a poorer quality hay. The type of hay on hand must also be considered when assessing the leafiness. Usually the more leafy material that is there, the more the horses eating the hay will like it and the higher is the nutritional value.
Moldy or dusty hay is not acceptable for horses, especially horses that have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (heaves). The mold and dust in the hay can be assessed by simply taking a flake, preferably from the middle of the bale, and pulling it apart. If it stays together or there are very wet areas that can be black or white then there is mold present. If dust falls out or is seen then the hay is dusty. Most horses will eat dusty hay but it can cause problems with the digestive and respiratory system. If all the hay that is available is dusty then you can shake it out, wet the hay down, and then feed it outside to cut down on the dust.
The smell of the hay can tell a lot about it. The hay should smell like it has been freshly cut. If there is an odd smell to the hay you should assess it for the presence of mold or possibly weeds. Weedy hay can cause more problems than one would expect. If the weeds in the hay are toxic or have thorns there could be some tragic consequences to feeding it. If the weeds in the hay are not toxic but the horses simply won’t eat them then you have a lot of wastage. You paid for a full bale of hay so you expect the whole bale to be eaten. No one should pay for weeds.
The next time you buy hay, just remember some of these simple points and you will hopefully be happy with the quality of hay you are purchasing.