Hay is crucial for the daily diet of many small herbivores. When choosing hay for small pets, it’s important to consider various factors to select the best option. With numerous types and opinions on hay, the choice can be challenging. Different animals and different life stages, like pregnancy and lactation, may require specific types of hay. Therefore, understanding your pet’s needs and the available hay options is key to making the right choice.
How to Choose the Best Hay?
When you select hay for your animals, keep the following tips in mind to help you select the best hay.
Check Aroma, Color, Texture, Appearance
When assessing the quality and nutritional value of hay, several factors, such as aroma, color, appearance, and texture, are important indicators.
- Aroma: Good quality timothy or alfalfa hay should have a pleasant, grass-like scent. Any off odors can indicate molding or bacterial growth, even if it’s not visible.
- Texture: The texture of the hay is crucial, especially considering the size and age of the animals. Small animals generally prefer softer hay with fine stems and plenty of green leaves, as it’s easier to chew. In contrast, larger animals can handle rougher hay, but it’s still advisable to avoid excessively stalky hay. For older animals, rough or stalky hay might be too challenging to chew properly. Hay that isn’t well-chewed can impair digestive health and reduce the animal’s ability to extract necessary nutrients.
- Appearance and Color: While slight discoloration on the outside of hay bales is normal (especially in stacked hay), it’s essential to inspect the interior of the bales. Look for hay that is green and leafy inside, as this is typically indicative of better quality.
In summary, selecting the right hay involves a careful examination of its scent, texture, and internal appearance, with consideration given to the specific needs of the animals consuming it.
Avoid Thickened Legumes and seeded Grass Hay
When selecting legume hays like alfalfa, it’s best to opt for younger plants. These are richer in nutrients, have more leaves, and haven’t yet produced seed pods, making them more palatable. In contrast, as legumes mature, their appeal and nutritional value decrease.
For grasshays, the situation is somewhat different. Hay with thicker stalks and seed formation tends to have a lower protein content. However, grass hay cut later in the season usually contains less sugar and starch, which can be beneficial. These later cuts are especially suitable for animals with metabolic issues as long as the hay remains green and smells fresh.
The choice of hay depends on the specific needs of the animals. Young animals or those requiring additional energy, such as pregnant or lactating ones, benefit from an earlier cut, nutrient-rich hay. On the other hand, later cuts, which are stalkier, are often more suitable for smaller animals.
Check for Mold & Other Toxins
When choosing hay, consider these key factors for optimal quality and safety:
- Low Dust Content: Select hay with minimal dust to prevent respiratory issues in animals. Avoid hay that’s been stored for long periods in conditions where mold could develop, especially if exposed to high moisture in hot, humid, or damp environments.
- Nutrient Value: Be aware that hay loses nutritional value over time. Vitamins E, C, and A diminish, with significant reductions after six months of storage. Fresher hay generally offers better nutritional benefits.
- Cleanliness: Check for debris in the hay, which can interfere with an animal’s gut health if ingested. Hay containing excessive dirt is not ideal as it can disrupt gut function and increase iron intake, which might be harmful.
- Blister Beetle Infestation: Pay special attention to alfalfa hay, which is particularly susceptible to blister beetle infestations during mid to late summer. Verify the hay’s origin and whether it’s from an area known for such infestations. Blister beetles are detrimental to hay quality and extremely toxic to certain animals. Ingesting cantharidin, a toxin from these beetles, can cause severe digestive issues, including colic and diarrhea, as well as kidney damage and heart problems.
Never Choose hay from Heavy Bales
To ensure hay quality and safety, consider these key points:
- Weight of Bales: Heavy bales often suggest improper curing or drying before baling. Wet hay bales are not only heavier but also pose a higher risk of mold growth.
- Inspection: It’s crucial to inspect each bale thoroughly. For large round bales, which are more challenging to examine, you can either open a bale or test its middle. Avoid bales that feel warm, as this is a sign of excessive moisture.
- Ideal Moisture Levels: Hay should ideally be baled with a moisture content of around 10% and certainly no more than 15-20%. If the hay is too moist, it needs to undergo a “sweat” process in the loft. This is due to the activity of thermophilic molds, which diminish as the hay dries and the moisture levels decrease.
When buying bulk timothy hay, it’s crucial to purchase only the amount you can store safely in a cool, dry place and from trusted hay suppliers. Avoid overbuying, even during sales, as hay quality can degrade rapidly if left outside, exposed to sun and rain. Rain exposure increases the risk of mold growth and mycotoxin production in hay while also reducing its nutritional value, including vitamins and energy content. Sunlight can similarly harm hay quality by breaking down essential nutrients, such as vitamin E.
Choose Bale Type Wisely
Hay is available in various bale types, such as small square bales, large square bales, and round bales. The choice largely depends on the convenience and layout of your stable and outdoor feeding areas.
- Small square bales: They are popular for their ease of handling and convenience, although they tend to be more expensive. If you have adequate storage space and the necessary equipment, large square bales and round bales are also viable options.
- Large bales: They have a higher chance of being contaminated with mold, and small animals accidentally baled with the hay are more likely to be overlooked in large bales. If these animals die, there’s a risk of botulism toxin release.
- Wrapped bales: Round or wrapped bales are another option, which better preserves the nutrient content due to their wrapping. But they usually contain more moisture, which increases the likelihood of spoilage once unwrapped. These bales might be suitable for larger herds that can consume them quickly after unwrapping.
When purchasing hay in bulk, it’s important to conduct a hay analysis to ensure it meets your animal’s nutritional needs. This process is relatively inexpensive and provides valuable information for creating a balanced feeding plan.
To accurately sample hay, use a bale probe or corer, which can be bought or rented from feed stores or through your state agricultural extension agent. Insert the corner into the center of the small end of a square bale to get a representative sample. Ideally, sample from 10-20 different bales for a reliable quality assessment.
If a bale corer isn’t available, stainless steel scissors can be used as an alternative. Open a bale carefully without disturbing the leaves, take a handful of hay from the inside, and cut a small portion with the scissors.
For a comprehensive hay analysis, submit a sample weighing between 100 and 500 grams (up to 1 pound) to a forage laboratory. Request hay analysis, which will provide details on moisture level, protein content, fiber, and estimated energy content. This information is essential for optimizing your animal’s diet.
Hay is available in a wide variety, so it’s important to consider its quality, cut, and nutrient content, including fiber and protein, to meet your animals’ needs. To maintain its quality, store the timothy or alfalfa hay properly by covering it and avoiding direct contact with the ground.