How can I tell if my hay is high quality?
There are lots of factors here to consider before you guys out there accept a shipment of hay. You will not be able to just take a peek, it's important to bust open some bales and get your nose and eyes in there.
Upon first glance, hay should be a good bright green color, with little dust, no mold or moldy odor, and minimal "stuff" in the hay like wire, twigs, birds, bugs, etc. (Yes, I have found squished birds and even a squished snake in hay) I have also found wire and nails. "Making" hay is a tricky process, and one that is really not regulated at all. Finding a good hay broker with solid relationships to a grower is your best bet in getting consistent, quality hay. I have even found junk hay and premium hay for the same price at the same feed store. Go figure.
You will need to check the hay also for leaf shattering. This occurs when the leaves break away from the stems, and is an indicator of rough handling during the cutting and baling process. It's also very obvious in legume hays, like alfalfa and clover.
You can also examine the leafiness of the hay, which is a fancy way of saying how many leaves are in the bale. It's a ratio of the stems to leaves, especially in legumes. A higher ratio is better, indicating a better energy value. This is typical of the first cuts of hay (younger hay). More mature hay is high in stems and the stems get fatter as the hay grows. It's not ideal, but better than some! Many picky horses don't like super stemmy hay.
You may want to pick through a flake or two and check it out! This is a blend of several grasses, so the texture is different.
The color of your hay should be bright green with a fresh smell. While this is so wonderful to look at and smell, it's not the end all and be all of hay quality. (To be boring and technical, the degree of green indicates typical palatibility and carotene content. Greener = yummier and more carotene - but this varies)
- Sometimes hay will be bleached from the sun, you will see a golden yellow color on the sun exposed side, and the inside will be unaffected.
- A yellowing of the hay throughout the bale indicates a very mature cutting, and is very common in grass hays. (I'm likely to send this hay back.)
- If you find dark brown or black portions of the hay, it's likely due to rain, dew, or fog damage. I'm likely to send this hay back also.
- If you find mold, it's likely due to moist hay being baled. Mold will actually eat the nutrition out of the hay, and I'm definitely sending this stuff back, too. Be warned that mold is hard to see. Use your nose and know if a patch or portion of the hay is funky. Most horses won't eat it, but why buy hay they won't eat??
It's SO MUCH fun to move hay!
You need to also watch for blister beetles. These deadly little bugs can get stuck in hay (typically alfalfa) during the baling process. They contain a deadly toxin, cantharidin, that doesn't go away when the bug dies. Your horse can die from accidentally eating them. If you even think your horse ate one, please call your vet. You may see colic, diarrhea, blisters on the mouth (which also occur internally), abnormally frequent urination, and discolored urine. More on these deadly bugs can be found here.
Blister beetles only live in certain parts of the country. But, with so many droughts destroying local hay supplies, your hay may come halfway across the country. Inspect your hay to be safe!!