by Lynda M. Vanden Elzen
Whether we own one pleasure horse or a barn of fifty performance horses, it is important that all of us know how much our horses eat. We need to be able to budget for the cost of feeding and be aware of how long our hay will last. Also, knowing how much our horses tend to eat can be helpful so we will notice changes in their intake, enabling us to catch colics and other health problems quickly. On a day to day basis, if we pay attention to our horse’s body condition and do some simple math, we can figure out if we might need to adjust the type of hay we are feeding in order to provide the right amount of energy and nutrients.
One of the most common questions we get is “How much is your hay per bale?” The answer is that we sell by the short ton (2000 lbs), not by the bale, because how much does a bale weigh? 30 lbs? 60 lbs? 100 lbs? 800 lbs? 1800 lbs? Bales vary a LOT, as you can see, so how much a bale costs depends on how much it weighs, and comparing hay prices based on bale prices is extremely misleading.
In the Fraser Valley, local hay bales can be very light. The size of the bale in no way tells you how much it weighs, as it depends on how tightly packed the bale is, and what kind of hay it is as well. Often, people think they’re getting a deal by purchasing local small square bales off the field for $7/bale, say. Well, if that $7 bale weighs 30 lbs, that’s not really a good deal, is it? In that case, you’re paying $0.23/lb for your hay. Most of the hay we sell is somewhere around 30 bales per ton. That means an average bale weighs about 67 lbs. If the hay is $470/ton, for example, and it’s 30 bales per ton, then you’re paying $15.67 per bale, but by the pound you’re still paying $0.23. Even though these bales have vastly different prices on the surface, ultimately they are costing you the same amount of money by weight. The important information to take away from this is that if you want to compare apples to apples, you need a consistent basis for comparison!
How many flakes of hay should I feed?
Another question we get sometimes is, “How many flakes should I feed?” Square bales are sectioned into flakes, so many horse owners feed by the flake. Flakes are not a standard size or weight – different balers create different sized flakes, and depending on the tightness of the baler’s tensioner, the flakes will be looser or tighter packed. Combined with the fact that different bales weigh different amounts, this means that we cannot tell you how many flakes you should feed. All we can advise is that if you want to know how much your horse is eating, you should weigh your hay as you feed it, or at least be aware of the average bale weight and how many days it takes to use a bale.
How much do horses eat?
An average sized horse such as a 16hh, 1,100 lb thoroughbred, for example, will tend to eat about a half ton (1,000 lbs) of hay per month if fed an appropriate hay free choice. Given there are an average of 30.4 days in a month, that comes out to about 33 lbs of hay per day, or about 3% of bodyweight.
A smaller horse, like a 15hh, 800 lb stock horse might eat more like a third of a ton (667 lbs) of hay per month if fed free choice. Using the same math, that comes out to about 22 lbs of hay per day, or – again – close to 3% of bodyweight. These are just loose guidelines, however, because how much a horse will eat depends what he is eating.
Many people talk about how much your horse should eat as a percentage of bodyweight, but the rate of consumption really depends what you are feeding. The quantity of feed is part of the equation, but the amount of energy in that feed is extremely important to consider! It is quite a different thing if my hard keeping thoroughbred eats 3% of her bodyweight in a high calorie 2nd cut orchard/alfalfa with an RFV (relative fed value) of 140%, vs if my easy keeping stock horse eats 3% of his bodyweight in a low calorie, high fibre, 1st cut timothy with an RFV of 75% and a texture like fire kindling. To put it in humans terms, eating a pound of cheese is a LOT different than eating a pound of celery! You can’t just say that a person should eat a certain percentage of bodyweight in food every day without considering the type of food. (Too bad, because the 2% of my bodyweight in bacon diet sounds pretty good!)
Also, if you want to reduce the amount your horse eats, instead of simply adjusting the quantity you feed, you can instead adjust the quality, just like in the example above comparing celery to cheese. That is, if you want your horse to eat fewer calories and lose some weight, why not feed a hay that is lower in calories and sugars, and higher in fibre? That way, he’ll eat less as a function of what you are feeding him, rather than having to stand around with no hay in between feedings. Again, if you want to compare apples to apples, basing how much you feed on a percentage of the horse’s ideal bodyweight does not take into account the vastly different nutrient and energy profiles of different types of hay.
Am I feeding the right hay?
You can use the feed percentage of bodyweight as a guideline to assess if you are feeding an appropriate forage. For example, if you do the math and discover that your overweight horse is consuming 5% of his bodyweight in hay every day, you can look at what type of hay you are feeding. Many people want to feed a soft, palatable hay that their horses love, but perhaps what their fat pony needs is a coarser, higher fibre, lower calorie hay to keep him busy without packing such a caloric punch. You might find that if you feed a hay that is higher in fibre, the pony will adjust the quantity he is eating as a natural result of what he is eating. In that way, you can use the feed percentage of bodyweight calculation as a guide to tell you whether you are feeding appropriate hay, rather than using it to restrict inappropriate hay.
Similarly, if your hard keeper is losing weight despite being fed free choice, you can look at what you are feeding and provide something higher in energy, and perhaps lower in fibre, to enable him to gain weight.
Ultimately, all of this is a general guideline, and every horse is an individual. It is important to avoid taking a cookie cutter approach to horses who are not the same, so if your horse has forage available all the time, and if he is healthy and happy and able to do his job, then don’t fix what isn’t broken! As long as you have an idea of how much he tends to eat, you can budget for when you will need hay, and how much to buy. If he is not going through an appropriate amount of hay and his body condition is not ideal, being aware of these guidelines can be a big help so you can adjust your feeding program as required. Make sure you are considering how much your hay costs, not by the bale, but by the pound, so you can make an accurate comparison between the vastly different prices you see advertised. It is also worth considering the nutritional value of what you are feeding, whether your horses will eat it, and how what they are eating is affecting their overall health and performance.