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Understanding Hay

Lucerne, Rhodes Grass, Oaten, and Teff Hay


When it comes to equine nutrition, the type of hay you choose to feed your horse can make a significant difference. Let's delve into the differences between four common types of hay: 


Lucerne Hay


Lucerne hay, also known as alfalfa, is a legume rather than a grass. It’s relatively low in sugar and starch, but high in protein and calcium. This makes it a great choice for horses needing to gain weight and build muscle. However, its high calcium to phosphorus ratio (over 4:1) needs to be considered. It is a great option if you have oxalate pastures which bind calcium.



Grassy lucerne, is a lucerne cut with other pasture grasses. It's a great option when straight lucerne is too rich for your horse, or you need to feed large amounts to replace pasture. Be aware when you are feeding grassy hays that they may contain unwanted weeds. We always feed grassy lucerne in one spot to prevent weeds from spreading across the property.


Rhodes Grass Hay


Rhodes Grass hay is considered the best in terms of the sugar and starch profile. Its low sugar and starch levels allow for safe, unlimited continuous grazing, making it a good choice for insulin-resistant and laminitic prone horses. However, nutrient profiles can vary due to growing conditions, so it’s important to monitor your horse closely when changing harvest batches.


 Oaten Hay


Oaten hay, known as the ‘candy’ of hays, is high in sugar and starch, and low in nutritional value. This makes it an unsuitable choice for insulin-resistant or laminitic prone horses. Additionally, due to the hours spent grazing, horses fed with high sugar oaten hay are at risk of more frequent dental issues over time. We don't recommend either oaten hay or oaten chaff, or even mixed chaff.



Tef Hay


Tef hay is considered to be the next best in terms of the sugar and starch profile after Rhodes Grass hay. However, variability with harvest has seen sugar and starch levels above the safe 10% range. Therefore, it’s important to monitor your horse’s response initially when changing harvest batches.


Meadow Hay


Meadow hay is basically baled grasses. There is no nutrient analysis, because it can be anything. We don't even use it for mulch, because we don't know what seeds are contained within.


The type of hay you choose to feed your horse should depend on their specific nutritional needs and health status. Always remember to introduce new types of hay gradually to avoid digestive upset. For example, rather than finishing one batch and starting another, give half a biscuit of the old hay with half a biscuit of the new so that the gut biome can adjust.

The nutrient profiles on the feedipedia website are based on averages. Monitor hoof temperature and pulses when introducing any new hays, as variables such as the time of cut, and qualities of the season, like rainfall will influence the nutrient profile, and most importantly, the sugar level.


When feeding hay as the majority of a horse’s diet, knowing the nutritional value of the hay you’re feeding is important - particularly if it makes up the bulk of calories. We feed different hays to different horses.


What hay do we feed our horses?

Our old girls who have poor teeth (35 years +) get several biscuits per day of first-cut, high-quality, very leafy, straight lucerne. They don't graze well, so we need to meet all of their calorie requirements in feed. Our laminitic pony would die if we gave her that hay - even soaked. Rhodes hay is more suitable for her. Our TBs get one biscuit of the best lucerne per day for the protein and calcium content. We don't need to feed them Rhodes because they are meeting their calorie requirements on pasture. Our fat ponies who are currently overweight on pasture get no additional hay at this time.


In all cases what is missing from hay is adequate trace minerals. These will need to be supplied in other ways. Deficiencies in trace minerals will show visible symptoms, for example itch, greasy heel and other skin conditions, coat fading or rusting, difficulty maintaining weight, and other symptoms which are less obvious like anemia or metabolic dysfunction.


We make a Trace Mineral Mix which supplies what minerals are typically missing from grasses and hays. It's perfect for horse owners who want to keep their diet simple. It can be added to a small amount of chaff, or in a mash like copra meal. At $20/kg at a dose of 30g/day it's a very economical way to meet your horse's basic nutritional needs.

Here's an experiment: when you are at the supermarket, look in the trolley and then look at the person pushing the trolley. You are literally seeing what someone eats and what their condition is like.

While there are a whole lot of people in the middle, over time you will be able to observe the extremes at either end of the scale.

With horses - like people - there will be a whole lot in the middle, but you can choose to meet all your horse's nutritional needs, and choose not to feed things that are not supporting their health, and then their skin, hooves, coat, energy levels, mood, immune response, and general wellbeing will all improve over time.

What's in your horse's trolley?


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