A horse’s diet is a pretty serious thing for you to keep in mind as a horse owner. A good diet can help your horse stay both happy and healthy, but what exactly does a good diet consist of? A lot of horse owners can agree on which concentrates are best, but many others struggle to choose between haylage and hay.
Hay and haylage both have benefits and drawbacks, which can make it a pretty tough decision to make. In this article, I’ll be explaining the differences between the two, and comparing their advantages and disadvantages, which should help you choose the best forage for your horse.
Haylage Vs Hay
Haylage Vs Hay: They are both types of forage used in animal nutrition. Haylage is a fermented forage with higher moisture content, making it more digestible and dust free but requiring careful storage to prevent spoilage. Hay, on the other hand, is dried grass or legume with lower moisture, offering long shelf life but potentially lower nutritional value and it can be dusty. Choosing between haylage and hay depends on your animal’s specific dietary needs and storage capabilities.
How Are Haylage and Hay Different?
Hay and hayalge are different in how they are made and stored. Hay is dried grass, which must be stored indoors and can be susceptible to dust. Haylage is more moist and is fermented which reduces the sugar, eliminates dust and preserves more nutrients. An example comparison of haylage and hay for early season Timothy and Ryegrass mix is shown below. Note, these are approximate and will vary depending on many factors.
Haylage Vs Hay – which is better?
Below is a table showing a comparion of Haylage Vs Hay, made at the same time of the year with the same mix of grass in the UK. You can see the differences quite clearly, with Haylage being lower in sugar while being higher in many other essential vitamins and minerals.
|Early-Season Haylage (UK)
|Early-Season Hay (UK)
|Sugar Content (%)
|Moisture Content (%)
|Vitamin A (IU/kg)
|Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) (mg/kg)
|Vitamin C (mg/kg)
|Vitamin D (IU/kg)
|Vitamin K (mg/kg)
|Vitamin E (mg/kg)
What is Haylage?
The grass that is used to make haylage is cut quite early on. After that, it is only allowed to wilt slightly, and not completely dry out. Then, around 24-48 hours after it gets cut, it gets baled and then wrapped in polythene to be preserved.
The plastic wrap ensures seals in haylage’s moisture content and creates an anaerobic environment, which means that no oxygen gets inside. This allows the haylage to ferment, helping to preserve it.
The haylage fermentation process seals in good bacteria that use water-soluble carbohydrates to produce lactic acid. This drops the pH levels in the sealed bale so that mould spores are less likely to form.
Haylage is usually made from different types of moist grasses. We use ryegrass and timothy. Alfalfa, clover, and Bermuda grasses are also sometimes turned into haylage.
Nadja and Major bringing in this seasons Haylage
The grass used to make hay is cut at a much more mature stage so that it already starts off a little drier than haylage. It then gets left on the ground to dry further and is turned over a couple of times to make sure that it dries the whole way through. This helps get its moisture content right down.
Hay isn’t usually wrapped in plastic so farmers have to make sure that it is as dry as possible, as this is usually the only way it is preserved. Although, some farmers do sell wrapped hay, and it kind of falls in between haylage and hay because it’s more moist than hay but less moist than haylage.
There are actually three different types of hay, namely grass hay, legume hay, and mixed hay. You may hear some people calling grass hay “meadow hay” as it’s usually made from meadow grass. Legume hay, on the other hand, is usually made from red or crimson clover.
Mixed hay is a little different, though, and what it’s made from will usually depend on who is selling it. Some farmers sell mixed hay that’s made from a mixture of different grasses or legumes, and others sell mixed hay that’s a mixture of both grasses and legumes.
Hay. Drier than haylage. Spread out to dry then rowed up to be baled
What Is The Nutritional Difference Between Haylage and Hay?
A horse’s diet needs to contain a good amount of fibre, and both haylage and hay can give your horse the fibre it needs. But, they don’t really have the same nutritional value.
Hay isn’t as nutritious as haylage because a lot of nutrients are lost in the drying process. But, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Older horses, and horses that aren’t in work, don’t need high-calorie forage, especially if all they do is sit around in the paddock. It’ll make them put on extra weight, and no one wants a chunky horse.
But, hay does trump haylage in the fibre department, as its dry matter content is a lot higher. This means you won’t need to feed your horse as much hay for it to get the fibre it needs.
Owners should still be careful when feeding hay to older horses, though. Its sugar levels are quite high, which means feeding your horse too much of it could cause it to develop laminitis over time.
Haylage beats out hay by quite a bit in the sugar levels department. This is because the sugars in haylage are converted to volatile fatty acids, and lactic acid during fermentation. Haylage also has more protein, is more digestible, and is overall more nutritious than hay.
So haylage is great for young horses in work, as it gives them the energy they need to perform. Give less haylage to older horses and horses that aren’t in work, though. It can be rich and can cause them to put on extra weight. A mix of straw and haylage works well for older horses and horses with laminitis or obesity.
Older horses who might be prone to weight gain can be fed a mix of haylage and straw to keep them fit
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Feeding Hay
If you store it properly you can feed it to your horses for a while before it goes off.
Hay is great for older horses and horses that aren’t in work. Its nutritional value is low, so it won’t cause them to put on weight if they aren’t very active.
Hay doesn’t need to be fermented, so the only way it will spoil is if it doesn’t get dried out properly.
Even high-quality hay can end up covered in dust and mould spores. It has to be stored indoors.
Hay isn’t great for young horses. It isn’t very nutritious, so they’ll need a lot of it to get the protein and nutrients they need.
Hay also loses more nutrients over time even if it is stored properly.
Hay will need to be soaked or steamed if you want to give it to EMS and laminitic horses. Its sugar levels are high which can aggravate their conditions. Steaming or soaking it can help with this.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Feeding Haylage
Haylage is pretty much completely dust-free forage, so it’s perfect for horses that have respiratory problems.
Haylage is more nutritious than hay, making it excellent for performance horses.
Haylage is much tastier, as most horses prefer the taste of it.
Haylage is a lot easier on the stomach, as it is very easy to digest due to its higher moisture content
It can be stored outdoors due to its protective wrap
Haylage doesn’t last as long as hay, so you’ll need to feed it to your horses soon after you open a bale of it.
Haylage can spoil if its plastic wrap is not sealed properly. So always check your bales out when you buy them.
Haylage can be quite acidic, which is not great for horses with hindgut sensitivities or gastric ulcers.
Haylage, although lowerin sugar than hay, does still contain it so you have to be careful with very sensitive horses. You can have it analysed to tell it’s nutritional content and help you decide how much to feed
So which is best? Hay or Haylage?
Taking the above into account, we use haylage. It’s ease of storing, less days of sun required to make it and it’s more favourable nutritional content make it our preffered choice. To manage our senstive horses, we mix it with good quality barley straw.
Be very careful about where you buy your hay or haylage from though. Our haylage pastures are regulalry ploughed down and resown with the right blend of grasses to give optimal nutrition and ensure there are no toxic weeds such as ragwort in the fields. It’s worth going to the place you buy it from and asking to see their pastures to ensure they are following good grassland management polices.
Horse Health Issues Caused by Overfeeding Hay and Haylage
We know that horses need either hay or haylage in their diets, but as owners, we need to make sure we aren’t overfeeding either of these forage sources. This can cause all sorts of health issues like:
Colic and diarrhoea
Colic is a word used to describe many different types of abdominal pain in horses and can be caused by both haylage and hay for a few reasons.
Firstly, low-quality hay and haylage aren’t very digestible and can cause blockages in the gut. These blockages can be extremely uncomfortable for your horse, and they can cause colic.
That said, even good quality hay and haylage that has not been properly stored can also cause colic. If your forage gets wet, mould will develop, which will irritate your horse’s gut and cause colic. So, once again, make sure to check your bales before you dish out any hay or haylage to your horses!
Switching the roughage you feed your horse more than once per year is another colic culprit. It can cause improper fermentation in your horse’s gut, which can cause an obstruction and then colic.
Low-quality or mouldy haylage and hay doesn’t just cause colic, though, it can also irritate a horse’s stomach and cause it to get diarrhoea.
Laminitis is an extremely painful health condition that affects horses. It comes about when the tissues between a horse’s hoof and coffin bone become damaged and inflamed.
To put it simply, horses can develop laminitis when they consume too many water-soluble carbohydrates (sugars and fructans).
Hay is genrally higher in sugar than haylege per kg (think of a rasin Vs a grape), so feeding your horse too much hay can cause it to develop laminitis. To prevent this, you should either reduce the amount of hay you give your horse or switch to haylage.
If you’d prefer to feed hay, you can get its sugar content down by soaking it or steaming it. Unfortunately, most horses don’t really like the taste of soaked hay. Thankfully, steaming hay doesn’t affect its taste too much but still gets rid of that harmful sugar.
Be careful with laminitic horse’s diets
Horse owners should know that giving too much forage to their horses will cause them to gain weight. Just like how humans gain weight too if they’re eating too much.
Unfortunately, overweight horses are more likely to develop other serious health conditions including degenerative joint disease, hay belly, and laminitis.
To avoid overfeeding your horse, you should keep an eye on how much you feed it based on how active it is. A retired horse who stands in a field all day will need a lot less roughage than a young horse that competes regularly
Is There an Alternative to Using Hay and Haylage?
If you can’t get hay or haylage easily, then there are some other roughage options out there. You can also feed your horses:
Bagged chopped forage
Sugar beet pulp. Feed in moderation and soak for the recommended time before use
What types of hay should not be given to horses?
Sorghum, Sudan, and Johnson hay should not be given to horses, as these types of hay are often high in nitrates, which can be very dangerous for horses.
Why should you not soak haylage?
You should never soak haylage, as this can cause it to ferment and become mouldy.
Can you mix haylage and hay?
Yes, you can. Haylage may be too rich for some horses to digest properly, so mixing it with some hay can help with this.
If you are interested in finding out what else horses can eat, check out our other atricles here: