Hay there… understanding forage

By Wendy Talbot on 15 July 2020

Hay there… understanding forage

With the hay making season upon us, now is a good time to brush up on your knowledge of forage. Understanding the different types of conserved forage available will enable you to stock up on the most suitable type for your horse, ready for the colder seasons ahead.

What is forage?

Forage is the vegetative part of a crop, either fresh or preserved, used as fodder for animals.1

Forage is an essential part of the horse’s diet and the equine digestive system has evolved to convert it efficiently into energy. Ideally horses should have ad lib access to forage but this may not be practical for good doers or those on diets, on which basis it should not be restricted to less that 15g per kilogram of bodyweight per day (dry matter).When the grass is growing many horses have access to forage by grazing but if pasture isn’t available, we have to rely on conserved forage, commonly hay or haylage, to feed our horses.2


Hay is cut grass that has been allowed to dry out completely before it is baled. It is usually harvested any time between May and July. The downside with hay is that it can be dusty which can make some horses show reactions similar to human asthma, Soaking or steaming can help reduce the dust spores and relieve some of the signs. The nutritional value of hay can vary depending on the types of grass and the time at which it is cut. Soaking hay can reduce its water soluble carbohydrate content, making it safer for those prone to laminitis.


Haylage is cut grass that is baled and wrapped in plastic before it is fully dry. This gives it a higher moisture content than hay. Often it is cut earlier than hay and can have a higher energy value. The plus points with haylage are that horses usually find it palatable, it isn’t usually dusty and it doesn’t need to be soaked and unopened bales can be stored outside because they are wrapped. Because haylage contains more moisture than hay, a greater weight needs to be fed.


Oat or barley Straw can be a useful partial forage replacement option (up 30% of the ration is advised) for good doers and weightwatchers. A recent study conducted by Redwings and the University of Edinburgh has shown that straw may be a useful alternative to hay alone when trying to induce weight loss in ponies. Straw is much lower in calories than hay or haylage and it takes longer for horses to eat is as it is less digestible – which keeps horses busy munching for longer. Before feeding straw it’s important to check that your horse’s teeth are capable of chewing it efficiently, which will also reduce the risk of colic. Always remember to make any dietary changes gradually.3,4

Other forage options

Chopped dried grass is cut early and dried artificially. It can come in a chop form or as pellets and can be useful as a partial forage replacement for poor doers and seniors because it is often higher in protein and energy than hay. For the same reason it shouldn’t be fed to good doers and those prone to laminitis.

Short chopped fibres usually contain a combination of chopped straw, grass and alfalfa. Various chopped fibre options are available to specifically suit good doers, poor doers and seniors. Some have added vitamins and minerals and some can be used to replace the forage ration completely.

Soakable fibre is useful for horses with dental problems or fussy feeders. Sugar beet can be added to the diet in molassed or unmolassed forms, while other soakable high fibre options, such as mashes or soaked grass or fibre blocks can be used as partial hay replacers.

High fibre cubes can be used as a complete compound feed or partial replacer and are a versatile product for any feed room.

Be fibre wise

Whichever fibre option you choose for your horse be sure to make any dietary changes slowly. If you are buying in hay or haylage ask to see a sample bale first and consider having it analysed (many feed companies offer this service) to make sure the nutritional value is suitable for your horse. If you are thinking of replacing hay or haylage with short chopped or soakable fibre, it’s a good idea to speak to your vet or one of the feed company helplines to discuss your horse’s specific requirements.

1.Fodder Production and Grassland Management
accessed 10 June 2020

2. Nelson S Why understanding your horse’s digestive system is so important
Accessed 10 June 2020

3. Shortage of forage? – don’t panic
Accessed 10 June 2020

4. Dosi, MCM., Kirton, R., Hallsworth, S., Keen, JA., Morgan, RA.
Inducing weight loss in native ponies: is straw a viable alternative to hay?
Veterinary Record Published Online First: 03 May 2020. doi: 10.1136/vr.105793

5. Donoho E
H&H Feed Week: Know your forage: which is the perfect type for your horse?
Accessed 10 June 2020




Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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