Contributed by: Valerie Mellema, Gray Horse Publishing
While it still doesn’t feel like winter in East Texas right now, colder days are ahead and we need to ensure that we’re prepared to feed our horses properly. Hay is crucial to keeping horses fat and happy in the winter and many find themselves trying to figure out exactly how much hay they need to feed and stock up on.
Good quality hay is the best way to keep horses warm throughout the winter. The more they eat, the warmer they stay as hay is high in fiber. High fiber feeds produce more heat during digestion than low fiber grain, such as corn, oats or barley. However, of these three grains, oats produce the most heat due to the fiber in the outer hull.
In areas where grass is not available or grazing isn’t an option (think snow covered fields), a mature horse should have ample access to hay and pregnant/lactating mares should have even more. According to North Dakota State University, a mature horse should be fed 2% of its body weight per day in total feed. Lactating mares should receive 3%. What does that mean in actionable numbers? A horse should be fed 2 pounds of grass hay per 100 pounds of body weight.
Now, just because you stick a round bale out in the field doesn’t mean you’re meeting that 2%. Keep in mind that there is a lot of waste and a round bale feeder can help reduce waste to less than 20%. Keeping it covered and dry will also help your hay last longer. Assuming 20% is wasted, the average 1000-pound horse will require 24 pounds of hay per day. Most round bales average around 1200 pounds. Under this rule of thumb, one round bale is enough hay for about one month for one horse, accounting for waste. However, if temperatures get particularly cold, around 30 degrees and lower, this adds a requirement of an additional 2 pounds of feed per day. Every 10 degree decrease below 30 degrees, adds an additional 2 pounds of feed per day. Wind can also increase the need for more hay as well. In just a 10-15 mph wind, horses will consume up to an additional 4 to 8 pounds of hay per day. Horses without shelter in the wind, will eat up to 10-14 pounds more per day.
Keep in mind that this is all based on high quality hay. Poor quality hay will not meet the nutritional requirements of horses. Good quality hay will be green, have a good amount of leaves and few large stems. Young and growing horses will also eat more, as well pregnant and lactating mares. Feeding more poor quality hay than high quality hay will not suffice either. Horses will lose weight in the winter even if they are fed all the low-quality hay you can find. It simply does not provide enough energy and nutrients.
Another important component to feeding through the winter is water. If water is not readily available, horses will reduce their feed intake and can suffer from increased chances of impaction and colic.
So, get out your meteorologist hats and look ahead into the winter. Determine how many bales of hay you will need to make it through the winter based on the number of horses you have, what level of growth and maturity they are at, and how much exercise they will be getting to determine how much hay you will need to stock up on.