How much hay to feed a horse in the winter
As winter approaches and pasture availability declines, most horse owners start thinking about hay. Knowing how much hay your horse may need per day, or how to spot good hay, can be tricky if you are less experienced.
So, how do you plan your winter hay purchase?
First, know how much hay you will need to provide.
Hay can be expensive, so it is important to supply an adequate amount without wasting it. And from a health perspective, the goal is to meet fiber and foraging needs, and nutrient requirements, without over- or under-supplying.
Horses typically eat 2 to 2.5% of their body weight on a dry matter basis. Hay is typically around 90% dry matter, so an average-sized adult horse, weighing 1100 lb., should consume 24 to 30 lb. of hay over a 24-hour period. Keep in mind that the amount of grain you offer will replace some of this hay. The very minimum forage offered for a horse this size should be about 1.25% of body weight on a dry matter basis, or 15 lb. Feeding below this amount may cause harm to gastrointestinal health (e.g., gastric ulcers) and has been associated with behaviors such as chewing wood and eating bedding.
Choose the right hay for your horse.
Physical quality characteristics include the stem-to-leaf ratio (how “stemmy” it is) and the presence of seedheads (indicators of maturity), weeds, and foreign objects, as well as dustiness and mold. Quality can also be measured based on nutritional composition. Having a nutritional evaluation of the hay you plan to purchase is very helpful.
Often, hay can provide almost all the nutrients that a mature horse may need. However, not all horses benefit from being fed the most nutritious hay, so consider what the horse is used for, any health issues the horse may have, and winter management practice as you make your hay-purchasing decisions. For example, an overweight horse may benefit from a more mature hay that provides fewer calories but can be fed in a sufficient quantity to keep the gastrointestinal tract healthy. In contrast, a growing horse will consume a smaller amount of hay, so a higher nutritional quality is needed, with calcium, phosphorus, and protein content being particularly important.
Keep in mind the approximate length of winter in your area.
The longer your winter, the more hay you will need. Keep some on hand to transition to spring pasture. Hay intake may increase temporarily when the temperature drops particularly low, since fermentation of hay in the hindgut helps to regulate body temperature. Provide extra hay during a cold spell.