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The landscape is changing

By Gary Sliworsky
Ag. Rep.

The rural landscape in Ontario is changing, and we are seeing more and more horse farms. There are about 300,000 horses in Ontario, and the numbers are increasing. These horses consume approximately 750,000 tonnes of hay every year. The U.S. has over 9 million horses, and many of these are located within trucking distance from Ontario. For hay producers, there is a huge potential market, but special skills are required. The following is part 1 of an article by Joel Bagg, Forage Specialist with OMAFRA.
The first rule of successful marketing is to “identify the product your customer wants to buy, and then produce that product”. In order to be successful in the hay business, both hay production and marketing skills are required. Knowing your buyer and what she wants in terms of quality is a crucial component in carving out a niche in this market. Do your market research first, before you make the hay.
The criteria for “quality hay” are quite different for horses than they are for cattle. Forage quality for dairy producers means a high percentage of alfalfa, and early cutting to ensure high protein and digestible energy. By contrast, for horse owners, “quality hay” most importantly means dust-free and mould-free. Mouldy hay is the result of rain damage, baling at moistures that are too high, slow drying in the windrow during high humidity, or improper storage. Horses are very susceptible to mould spores and suffer irritation of the respiratory tract. This can result in “heaves”, a chronic cough and “wheezing” that is very damaging.
Matching the nutrient content of hay with the requirements of the horse is important. There are many different types and uses of horses with different levels of nutrient requirements. Relative to dairy cows, horses do not have high crude protein (CP) requirements. Some horse types, such as idle and lightly used mature horses, may have CP requirements of less than 10%. Nursing broodmares, high performance horses, and growing horses require higher digestible energy and protein diets, and therefore higher nutrient content hay. However, a large proportion of horses in the countryside, including the many idle or lightly used recreational horses, do not require high energy or even moderately high protein diets.
For a large proportion of the horse hay market, early cutting to increase protein and digestible energy is not as important, or even necessarily desirable. A mature horse used for the occasional trail ride is at risk of being too fat if fed high digestible energy hay. Hay that has no mould or dust is more important to maintaining the health of this horse. Grass or grass-alfalfa mixtures are often more suitable. The preferred mixture is typically alfalfa and timothy.
Colour does not provide any direct information on the nutritional content of hay, but a poor colour can be an indicator of problems during harvest and storage. A rich green colour indicates that the hay was not rained-on, dried quickly (indicating higher sugar content), and did not heat or mould during storage. Poor odours can also indicate mould. Weeds and trash, such as old stubble, will reduce the value of horse hay. Weeds can be present in hay that are highly poisonous to horses.