Hay for horses, cattle, goats, and sheep

Naturally, horses are designed to thrive on a diet primarily consisting of forages. Pasture and hay typically constitute the major portion of an average horse’s nutritional intake. While many individuals are aware that high-quality hay should possess a pleasant aroma, a soft texture, and a higher proportion of leaves to stems, the question arises: how does this visual assessment correlate with the actual nutritional content of the hay?


What is the precise amount of crude protein or starch present in a given bale of hay? To ascertain this information, it is essential to conduct a hay analysis.

A hay analysis offers insights into the specific quantities of various nutrients present in the hay. Obtaining a hay analysis has become relatively straightforward in contemporary times. Using a hay corer, samples should be collected from 10–20 percent of the bales within a single load.

It is imperative not to combine loads of hay, even if they originate from different cuttings in the same field or the same cutting from different years. Once a sample is collected and appropriately labeled, it is dispatched to a laboratory for analysis, with the results communicated in a concise 1–2-page document.

Interpreting the hay analysis results may prove challenging. The findings are presented in the form of abbreviations, numbers, and percentages, leaving individuals uncertain about what constitutes “good” or “bad” values. Therefore, let’s navigate through the meaning of these abbreviations and explore typical values associated with these nutrients.

Before delving into the specifics, it is crucial to note that hay analysis reports typically include two different columns detailing nutrient values. One column is labeled “as is” or “as fed,” signifying that the listed values represent the hay without any modifications—essentially, the hay as it would be fed to a horse.

The other column, labeled “DM” (Dry Matter), indicates values for the hay with the water content removed. In other words, the sample has been completely dried, eliminating any water content. The DM column facilitates straightforward comparisons between different feedstuffs, such as pasture and hay.

Critical Nutrients and Insights Provided in a Hay Analysis

Moisture and Protein Content is the most important in a hay analysis report.


Optimal hay moisture hovers around 15 percent. If moisture levels fall below 10 percent, the hay becomes excessively dry, leading to nutrient loss as leaves shatter. Extremely dry hay may also lack palatability. Conversely, if moisture exceeds 18 percent, there’s a risk of mold formation, escalating further if moisture surpasses 20 percent, potentially leading to spontaneous combustion.

Crude Protein (CP)

For adult horses, a hay analysis CP value of approximately 10–12 percent ensures adequate protein provision. However, considerations vary for young horses, those engaged in high-intensity exercise, or lactating broodmares, where a higher CP percentage is advisable.

Additionally, the hay type—whether grass or legume—impacts CP levels, with legumes like alfalfa typically boasting higher CP than grass hays. Notably, the plant’s maturity during hay harvesting significantly influences CP, underscoring the importance of hay analysis for an accurate assessment of nutrient content.

Carbohydrates in Hay

Fiber and Non-Structural Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates in hay can be categorized into two groups: structural carbohydrates, encompassing fibers, and non-structural carbohydrates, including sugars, starch, fructans, etc.

Analyzing Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) and Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) provides valuable insights into the fiber content of the hay. Fiber, composed of structural carbohydrates like cellulose and hemicellulose, increases with the maturity of the plant.

For horses needing weight management or considered easy keepers, aiming for higher ADF and NDF values within the ideal ranges is advisable. In contrast, horses requiring additional calories, such as young growing horses or those in intense work, may benefit from lower ADF and NDF values.

Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF)

ADF representing cellulose and lignin, ideally falls within the range of 30–45 percent for horses. Values exceeding 45 percent may result in decreased palatability, as Acid Detergent Fiber ADF is inversely correlated with digestibility—higher values indicate reduced breakdown within the horse’s gastrointestinal tract.

Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF)

NDF covering cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, should ideally range from 40–65 percent. Values surpassing 65 percent may lead to reduced hay consumption due to the negative correlation between NDF and forage intake. Higher NDF values indicate lower hay consumption.

The hay analysis includes measures of different non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), encompassing starch, water-soluble carbohydrates (WSC), and ethanol-soluble carbohydrates (ESC).

ESC measures simple sugars like glucose and sucrose, while WSC measures both simple sugars and fructans. For horses prone to chronic laminitis or other metabolic disorders, keeping NSC below 10–12 percent (on a dry matter basis) is recommended.

Horses in need of weight loss may also benefit from lower NSC numbers. While the hay analysis may not explicitly include NSC, it can be estimated by summing WSC and starch values.

Energy in Hay

Digestible Energy represents the energy that is digested and utilized by the horse, akin to a “calorie count” for the feed. The ideal DE varies depending on the specific energy requirements of your horse. For most hay, the DE typically falls within the range of 0.75–1.0 Mcal/lb.

Additional Hay Analysis Components

While the aforementioned factors provide key insights into hay quality, a comprehensive hay analysis may include a range of other components, including vitamins, minerals, ether extract fat, and Relative Feed Value (RFV).

Ether extract fat measures the fat content in the sample, but as forage is generally low in fat, it may not be a primary focus in hay analysis.

Relative Feed Value (RFV)

RFV, often used in cattle nutrition, offers an approximation of hay quality. A value of 100 is assigned to good-quality alfalfa hay, with higher RFV indicating better hay quality for a ruminant’s digestive system.

It’s important to note that forage testing labs may offer various levels of analysis. These packages include different components, allowing you to tailor the analysis based on your specific needs.

Considering the diverse nutrient requirements of individual horses, factors such as health, activity level, age, and body condition score play a crucial role in determining the ideal nutrient amounts.

Hay analysis

The values provided in a hay analysis, such as Dry Matter (DM), Moisture, Crude Protein (CP), Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF), Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF), Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC), and DE, enable horse owners to make informed decisions tailored to the unique dietary needs of their horses.

Adjustments can be made based on factors like training status, age, and health conditions, ensuring optimal nutrition and well-being.

Hay analysis for cattle

Hay analysis for cattle is a valuable practice that provides essential information about the nutritional content of the forage, aiding in the development of well-balanced and effective feeding programs.

Analyzing hay is particularly crucial for cattle, as it directly influences their growth, reproduction, and overall health. Here are key aspects to consider regarding hay analysis for cattle:

Hay analysis reveals the specific amounts of crucial nutrients in the forage, including protein, fiber, energy, minerals, and vitamins. Understanding these nutritional components is essential for ensuring that the cattle receive a well-rounded and adequate diet.

Different types of hay and forage have varying qualities. Analyzing hay helps in assessing the forage quality, enabling cattle producers to make informed decisions about feeding strategies. High-quality forage provides the necessary nutrients for cattle to thrive, while poor-quality forage may require supplementation.

Hay analysis is instrumental in formulating balanced rations for cattle. By knowing the nutrient composition of the hay, producers can adjust and supplement the diet to meet the specific nutritional needs of different groups of cattle, such as growing calves, lactating cows, or bulls.

Cattle have specific nutritional requirements based on factors like age, weight, stage of production, and activity level. Hay analysis assists in selecting the most suitable forages for different groups of cattle, optimizing their performance and health.

Certain health conditions in cattle, such as acidosis or metabolic disorders, can be influenced by the composition of the forage. Hay analysis aids in identifying potential issues and allows producers to make adjustments in the diet to manage or prevent these conditions.

Understanding the nutritional content of hay helps producers optimize their feeding programs, potentially reducing the need for costly supplements. This contributes to economic efficiency in cattle operations by maximizing the use of available forages.

Forages can exhibit variations in nutrient content due to factors such as maturity, weather conditions, and harvesting practices. Regular hay analysis allows producers to account for these variations and make necessary adjustments to the feeding program.

Properly managed forage consumption can also have environmental benefits, such as preventing overgrazing and maintaining soil health. Hay analysis assists in planning grazing rotations and supplementing with hay when needed.

Hay analysis for goats and sheep

Hay analysis for goats and sheep is a valuable practice that provides essential insights into the nutritional composition of forages, ensuring the health and well-being of these small ruminants. Analyzing hay is particularly crucial for goats and sheep, as their nutritional requirements differ from other livestock.


A thorough hay analysis yields valuable insights into your horse’s forage, playing a crucial role in achieving a well-balanced diet. It’s essential to tailor your hay selection to your horse’s specific needs; not every horse requires premium hay rich in energy and protein. For horses dealing with conditions like chronic laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, or obesity, a hay analysis becomes a critical tool in disease management.


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