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Haylage For Horses: Everything You Need To Know As Owner

What is Haylage for Horses?

Haylage is a type of forage made from grass cut, wilted, and then fermented under anaerobic conditions. It is used as a feed for horses and offers several benefits compared to traditional hay. When managed properly, haylage can be a highly beneficial feed for horses, offering a dust-free, nutrient-rich forage option.

Production Process for Haylage

The production process for haylage involves several critical steps to ensure the forage is adequately fermented and preserved. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the process:

Selection of Grass

  • Type of Grass: Choose a high-quality grass species suitable for haylage, such as ryegrass, timothy, alfalfa, or clover.
  • Timing: Cut the grass at an optimal stage of maturity, typically just before it reaches full bloom, to maximize nutritional content.


  • Equipment: Use a mower or mower conditioner to cut the grass evenly.
  • Height: Cut the grass to a suitable height to ensure a good yield while allowing for regrowth.


  • Duration: Allow the cut grass to wilt in the field for a period, usually 24 to 48 hours, depending on weather conditions.
  • Moisture Content: The goal is to reduce the grass’s moisture content to around 40-60%. This balance is crucial to ensuring proper fermentation while preventing spoilage.

Raking and Tedding

  • Raking: Use a rake to turn the grass, ensuring even drying and preventing clumping.
  • Tedding: Sometimes, a tedder may fluff and spread the grass, promoting faster and more uniform drying.


  • Baler: Use a specialized baler designed for hay or haylage, which can tightly compress the grass into dense bales.
  • Bale Type: Haylage can be made into either round or square bales, depending on equipment and storage preferences.


  • Plastic Wrap: Immediately after baling, wrap the bales tightly in multiple layers of plastic film. This creates an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment essential for fermentation.
  • Sealing: Ensure the bales are entirely sealed to prevent air entering, which could spoil the haylage.


  • Storage: Store the wrapped bales in a cool, dry place, ideally on pallets or a well-drained surface, to prevent punctures and exposure to moisture.
  • Duration: Allow the bales to ferment for at least 4 to 6 weeks. During this period, naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria will convert sugars in the grass into lactic acid, preserving the forage.

Quality Control

  • Inspection: Regularly check the bales for signs of damage or spoilage, such as holes in the plastic wrap or foul odors.
  • Testing: If possible, test the haylage for nutrient content and fermentation quality to ensure it meets the dietary needs of your horses.


  • Opening: When ready to use, open the bale and inspect the haylage for quality.
  • Feeding Rate: Feed the haylage within a few days of opening to prevent spoilage. Adjust the quantity fed based on the moisture content and nutritional density compared to dry hay.

Key Points to Remember

  • Moisture Management: Proper wilting and moisture control are crucial to successful haylage production. Too much moisture can lead to poor fermentation and spoilage, while too little can prevent proper fermentation.
  • Anaerobic Conditions: Maintaining anaerobic conditions through tight wrapping and sealing is essential for preventing spoilage and ensuring proper fermentation.
  • Storage: Protect wrapped bales from punctures and exposure to elements to maintain their quality until feeding.

Types of Haylage for Horses

Several types of haylage vary based on the kind of grass or legume used and the specific production methods. The choice of haylage type can be influenced by the nutritional needs of the horses and the environmental conditions where the haylage is produced. Here are the main types of haylage:

1. Grass Haylage

  • Description: Made primarily from grasses such as ryegrass, timothy, fescue, orchard grass.
  • Characteristics: Rich in fiber and suitable for horses requiring a high-fiber diet.
  • Nutritional Profile: Typically contains moderate protein levels and a balanced mix of energy and fiber.

2. Legume Haylage

  • Description: Made from legumes such as alfalfa or clover.
  • Characteristics: Higher in protein and calcium compared to grass haylage.
  • Nutritional Profile: Ideal for horses needing higher protein intake, such as lactating mares, growing foals, or performance horses.

3. Mixed Haylage

  • Description: A combination of grasses and legumes, such as a mix of ryegrass and clover or timothy and alfalfa.
  • Characteristics: Offers a balanced nutritional profile, benefiting from the high fiber of grasses and the high protein of legumes.
  • Nutritional Profile: It provides a good balance of protein, fiber, and energy and is suitable for a wide range of horses.

4. High-Moisture Haylage

  • Description: Haylage that is baled and wrapped at a higher moisture content (50-60%).
  • Characteristics: More susceptible to spoilage if not correctly managed but can be more palatable and more accessible to ferment.
  • Nutritional Profile: Typically retains more nutrients but needs careful handling to prevent mold and spoilage.

Low-Moisture Haylage

  • Description: Haylage with a lower moisture content (40-50%).
  • Characteristics: Easier to handle and store but may require more precise management during the wilting and baling process.
  • Nutritional Profile: Similar to high-moisture haylage but with slightly different fermentation dynamics.

Specialty Haylage

  • Herbal Haylage: This type incorporates herbs like mint or chamomile, providing additional benefits such as improved digestion or calming effects.
  • High-Sugar Haylage: Made from grasses specifically selected for higher sugar content, suitable for horses needing extra energy.

Factors Affecting Choice of Haylage for Horses

Choosing the correct type of haylage for horses involves considering several factors to ensure it meets their dietary needs and is managed effectively. Here are the main factors to consider:

1. Nutritional Needs of the Horses

  • Age and Growth Stage: Young, growing horses or foals need haylage with higher protein content, like legume haylage, to support growth and development.
  • Activity Level: Performance horses or those with high energy requirements may benefit from haylage with higher energy content. Idle or lightly worked horses may do well on grass haylage.
  • Health Conditions: Horses with specific health issues like metabolic disorders may require haylage with lower sugar content. Those with respiratory problems may benefit from dust-free haylage.

2. Type of Haylage for Horses

  • Grass Haylage: Generally higher in fiber and suitable for most horses.
  • Legume Haylage: Higher in protein and calcium, suitable for horses needing more nutrients, such as lactating mares and growing horses.
  • Mixed Haylage: Combines grasses and legumes, offering a balanced nutritional profile.

3. Moisture Content

  • High-Moisture Haylage (50-60%): More palatable and more accessible to ferment but more prone to spoilage.
  • Low-moisture haylage (40-50%) is easier to handle and store but requires careful management during wilting and baling.

4. Quality and Safety

  • Absence of Mold and Spoilage: To prevent health issues in horses, ensure the haylage is free from mold and spoilage.
  • Proper Fermentation: Haylage should be fermented appropriately to maintain its nutritional quality and safety.

4. Storage and Handling

  • Storage Facilities: Adequate storage space that protects haylage from punctures, moisture, and pests is essential.
  • Feeding Practices: Once a bale is opened, it should be used within a few days to prevent spoilage. Ensure you have the means to handle and feed haylage appropriately.

5. Local Climate and Weather Conditions

  • Growing Conditions: The forage that grows well locally will influence the type of haylage produced.
  • Harvesting Conditions: Weather conditions during harvest affect the wilting process and moisture content. Consistently wet climates may make it challenging to produce low-moisture haylage.

6. Cost and Availability

  • Cost of Production: Producing haylage can be more costly than traditional hay due to the need for specialized equipment and storage.
  • Availability: Different types of haylage may vary based on the region and local farming practices.

7. Nutritional Testing and Analysis

  • Regular Testing: Conduct regular nutritional testing of haylage to ensure it meets the dietary requirements of your horses.
  • Adjustments: Be prepared to adjust the type or amount of haylage based on nutritional test results and the horses’ condition.

8. Management Practices

  • Transitioning: Gradually transition horses to haylage from other forages to avoid digestive upsets.
  • Monitoring: Regularly monitor the horses’ health and condition, adjusting their diet as needed.

Qualities of Haylage for Horses

When selecting haylage for horses, it’s essential to consider several critical qualities to ensure it is safe, nutritious, and beneficial for their health. Here are the primary attributes to look for in high-quality haylage:

1. Nutritional Content

  • Protein: Adequate protein levels are crucial, especially for growing horses, lactating mares, and performance horses.
  • Fiber: High fiber content is essential for maintaining healthy digestion and preventing colic.
  • Energy: Suitable energy levels to meet the dietary needs of the horses, varying based on their activity levels.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Rich in essential vitamins (such as vitamins A and E) and minerals (such as calcium and phosphorus).

2. Moisture Content

  • Optimal Moisture Level: The haylage should have a 40-60% moisture content. Too much moisture can lead to spoilage, while too little can hinder proper fermentation.
  • Consistency: Uniform moisture content throughout the bale ensures even fermentation and quality.

3. Fermentation Quality

  • Proper Fermentation: Haylage should be well-fermented, indicated by a pleasant, slightly sweet, and fermented smell. This ensures that it is safe and nutritious.
  • pH Level: An appropriate pH level (typically around 4.0-5.5) indicates successful fermentation.

4. Absence of Contaminants

  • Mold-Free: High-quality haylage should be free from mold, which can harm horses and cause respiratory or digestive issues.
  • Dust-Free: Minimal dust content is essential, especially for horses with respiratory problems.
  • No Foreign Objects: The haylage should be free from foreign objects such as stones, metal pieces, or plastic.

5. Palatability

  • Taste and Smell: The haylage should appeal to horses regarding taste and smell, encouraging them to eat it readily.
  • Texture: The forage should have a good texture, not too coarse or too fine, to ensure it is easy to chew and digest.

6. Color and Appearance

  • Greenish Color: A fresh greenish color indicates good preservation of nutrients. Brown or black patches may indicate spoilage.
  • Uniformity: Consistent color and texture throughout the bale suggest even fermentation and quality.

7. Bale Integrity

  • Tightly Wrapped: The bales should be tightly wrapped in plastic to create an anaerobic environment, which is essential for proper fermentation.
  • No Punctures: Ensure the plastic wrap is intact without punctures or tears, which could allow air in and spoil the haylage.

8. Smell: Pleasant Aroma: A sweet, fermented smell is a good quality indicator. A musty, sour, or rancid smell suggests poor fermentation or spoilage.

9. Nutritional Testing

  • Regular Analysis: Have the haylage tested for its nutritional content to ensure it meets your horses’ dietary requirements. Look for balanced levels of protein, fiber, and energy.
  • Absence of Harmful Substances: Testing can also check for harmful substances, such as mycotoxins, which can harm horse health.

10. Storage Conditions

  • Proper Storage: Store haylage in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture to maintain its quality.
  • Protect from Pests: Ensure that haylage is stored in a manner that protects it from rodents and other pests.

Benefits of Haylage

Haylage offers several notable benefits for horses, which make it a valuable forage option compared to traditional dry hay. Here are the key advantages:

1. Nutritional Benefits

  • Higher Nutrient Retention: Haylage retains more nutrients, such as proteins, vitamins, and minerals, than dry hay due to reduced oxidation during storage. This ensures horses receive a richer nutrient intake.
  • Balanced Diet: Haylage provides a well-balanced diet with adequate levels of fiber, energy, and protein, which is essential for various types of horses, including growing foals, lactating mares, and performance horses.

2. Improved Palatability

  • Taste and Texture: The higher moisture content and fermentation process often make haylage more palatable to horses, encouraging better feed intake.
  • Aroma: The pleasant, slightly sweet smell of well-fermented haylage can be more appealing to horses, which can improve their willingness to eat.

3. Dust-Free: Reduced Respiratory Issues: Haylage is virtually dust-free, making it an excellent option for horses with respiratory problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO). This reduces the risk of respiratory issues linked to dust inhalation.

4. Lower Risk of Mold and Spores: 

  • Anaerobic Fermentation: The anaerobic conditions during fermentation help reduce mold and spores, lowering the risk of respiratory and digestive issues associated with moldy forage. This makes haylage a safer feed option.

5. Convenience and Storage

  • Less Storage Space: Haylage bales are denser and contain more moisture, so they take up less space than an equivalent weight of dry hay.
  • Less Dust in Storage: Haylage creates less dust during storage and handling, improving the working environment for stable staff and reducing respiratory risks.

6. Consistent Quality

  • Controlled Fermentation: When produced correctly, haylage provides consistent quality and nutritional content throughout the year, reducing the variability often seen in dry hay.
  • Less Weather Dependence: Haylage production is less dependent on prolonged periods of dry weather, as the grass only needs to wilt for a shorter period compared to the complete drying required for hay. This leads to more reliable forage production.

7. Environmental Benefits

  • Reduced Weather Risks: Making haylage can be less risky in regions with unpredictable weather, as the grass is wilted and baled more quickly than dry hay, reducing the chance of rain damage during harvest.
  • Efficient Use of Grassland: Haylage allows for more frequent grass cuts during the growing season, potentially increasing the total forage yield from a given area of grassland.

8. Suitability for Various Horse Types

  • Flexible Feeding: Suitable for many horses, from those with higher nutritional needs to those requiring maintenance diets.
  • Energy-Dense Option: Haylage provides a more energy-dense forage than dry hay for horses needing more energy, such as performance horses.

9. Reduced Feed Wastage

  • Higher Moisture Content: Haylage’s higher moisture content makes it less likely to be wasted compared to dry, brittle hay, which can produce more fines and dust.

What are the Differences Between Hay and Haylage?

Hay and haylage are both forage used to feed horses, but they differ significantly in their production processes, characteristics, and benefits. Here are the critical differences between hay and haylage:

1. Production Process

  • Hay:
    • Cutting and Drying: Grass or legumes are cut and left in the field to dry completely, reducing moisture content to around 10-20%.
    • Baling: The forage is baled into round or square bales once dried.
    • Storage: Stored in a dry place to prevent mold and spoilage.
  • Haylage:
    • Cutting and Wilting: Grass or legumes are cut and left to wilt for a shorter period, reducing moisture content to around 40-60%.
    • Baling and Wrapping: The wilted forage is baled and then tightly wrapped in plastic to create an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment.
    • Fermentation: The wrapped bales undergo fermentation, which preserves the forage and increases its palatability and nutrient retention.

2. Moisture Content

  • Hay: Has a low moisture content (10-20%).
  • Haylage: Has a higher moisture content (40-60%).

3. Nutrient Retention

  • Hay: Nutrients can be lost during drying due to sun and air exposure.
  • Haylage: Retains more nutrients because the fermentation process preserves them, and there is less exposure to oxygen.

4. Storage Requirements

  • Hay: Needs to be stored in a dry place to prevent mold and spoilage. Proper ventilation is crucial.
  • Haylage requires airtight storage to maintain the anaerobic conditions needed for fermentation. It must also be protected from punctures to prevent spoilage.

5. Palatability

  • Hay: It can be less palatable if it becomes too dry or dusty.
  • Haylage: Generally more palatable due to its higher moisture content and slightly sweet, fermented taste.

6. Dust and Mold

  • Hay: If not stored properly, hay can become dusty and is more prone to mold, which can cause respiratory issues in horses.
  • Haylage: Virtually dust-free and less prone to mold if fermented correctly, making it a better option for horses with respiratory issues.

7. Fermentation

  • Hay: Does not undergo fermentation.
  • Haylage: Undergoes anaerobic fermentation, which helps to preserve the forage and enhance its nutritional value.

8. Shelf Life Once Opened

  • Hay: Once baled, hay can be stored and fed for a longer period as long as it remains dry.
  • Haylage: Once the bale is opened, it needs to be used relatively quickly (within a few days to a week) to prevent spoilage due to exposure to air.

9. Environmental Considerations

  • Hay: Requires more extended periods of dry weather to produce, which can be challenging in some climates.
  • Haylage: Can be produced in more variable weather conditions due to shorter drying times.

10. Nutritional Suitability

  • Hay: Suitable for most horses but may need supplementation depending on nutrient loss during drying.
  • Haylage: Often richer in nutrients and suitable for horses needing higher nutrient intake, such as growing foals, lactating mares, and performance horses.

Nutritional Value of Haylage?

The nutritional value of haylage can vary based on the type of forage used, the conditions during its production, and the fermentation process. Generally, haylage retains more nutrients than traditional hay due to the reduced drying time and anaerobic fermentation. Here’s an overview of the typical nutritional components found in haylage:

1. Protein Content: Typically ranges from 8% to 20% depending on the type of forage (grass or legume). Legume haylage, such as alfalfa, tends to have a higher protein content than grass haylage. Essential for muscle development, repair, and overall growth, especially for young, growing horses and lactating mares.

2. Energy: Digestible Energy (DE): Generally higher than in dry hay due to the preservation of carbohydrates. DE values for haylage range from 8 to 12 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg). Energy provides the necessary energy for daily activities, growth, and maintenance. A higher energy content is beneficial for performance horses.

3. Fiber: Similar to hay, but the fiber structure can be slightly altered by the fermentation process. Crude fiber content typically ranges from 25% to 35%. Critical for maintaining healthy digestion and gut motility in horses. The high fiber content helps prevent colic and other digestive issues.

4. Carbohydrates: Non-Structural Carbohydrates (NSC): Lower than in dry hay because some sugars are consumed during fermentation. NSC levels generally range from 6% to 15%. NSC is essential for energy, but lower NSC levels are beneficial for horses prone to metabolic disorders like laminitis or insulin resistance.

5. Vitamins

  • Vitamin A: Haylage retains more beta-carotene (a Vitamin A precursor) than hay. Beta-carotene content can be around 50 to 200 milligrams per kilogram.
  • Vitamin E: Higher levels than in hay, as it is better preserved during the shorter wilting period and anaerobic storage.
  • Importance: Vitamins are crucial for immune function, reproduction, and overall health.

6. Minerals

  • Calcium: Levels vary depending on the forage type, with legume haylage having higher calcium content (around 1.0% to 1.5%) than grass haylage (0.4% to 0.8%).
  • Phosphorus: Typically ranges from 0.2% to 0.4%.
  • Magnesium, Potassium, and Other Minerals: Generally well-retained in haylage.
  • Importance: Minerals are vital for bone health, muscle function, and numerous metabolic processes.

7. Fermentation Products

  • Lactic Acid: Produced during fermentation, contributing to the acidic environment that preserves the forage. Lactic acid levels can range from 4% to 10%.
  • Volatile Fatty Acids (VFAs): These are produced during fermentation and provide an additional energy source for horses.

8. Moisture Content

  • Content: Typically ranges from 40% to 60%, higher than in dry hay (10% to 20%).
  • Importance: The higher moisture content can improve palatability and reduce dust, which is beneficial for horses with respiratory issues.

Why You Select Haylage to Horses?

Selecting haylage for horses can offer several advantages, making it an attractive forage option compared to traditional hay. Here are the reasons why you might choose haylage for your horses:

1. Higher Nutrient Retention: The reduced drying time and anaerobic fermentation process help to retain more proteins, vitamins, and minerals, providing a richer nutrient profile for horses.

2. Improved Palatability: 

  • Taste and Aroma: The higher moisture content and slight fermentation give haylage a more appealing taste and smell, encouraging horses to eat more readily.
  • Texture: Softer texture compared to dry hay, which some horses prefer.

3. Dust-Free: Reduced Respiratory Issues: Haylage is virtually dust-free, making it an excellent choice for horses with respiratory problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO).

4. Lower Risk of Mold and Spores: Safer Forage: Properly fermented haylage has a lower risk of mold and fungal spore development, reducing the chance of respiratory and digestive issues.

5. Consistent Quality:  Controlled Fermentation: When produced correctly, haylage provides consistent quality and nutritional content, reducing variability and ensuring a reliable feed source throughout the year.

  1. Environmental Flexibility
  • Less Weather Dependence: The haylage production is less dependent on extended periods of dry weather, making it a viable option in regions with unpredictable weather patterns.
  1. Suitability for Various Horse Types
  • Nutrient-Dense: Suitable for horses with higher nutritional needs, such as performance horses, growing foals, and lactating mares, due to their higher nutrient density.
  • Metabolic-Friendly: Haylage’s lower levels of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) make it a good option for horses prone to metabolic disorders like laminitis or insulin resistance.
  1. Storage and Handling
  • Compact Storage: Haylage bales are denser and have less storage space than dry hay bales.
  • Reduced Spoilage: Airtight wrapping minimizes spoilage risks, provided the bales are stored and handled correctly.
  1. Reduced Feed Wastage
  • Moisture Content: Haylage with higher moisture content is less likely to be wasted compared to dry, brittle hay, which can produce more fines and dust.
  1. Feeding Convenience
  • Readily Accepted: Most horses find haylage highly palatable, which can simplify feeding routines and ensure they are consuming enough forage.

Final Talk on Haylage for Horses

High-quality haylage for horses should have a balanced nutritional profile, optimal moisture content, proper fermentation, and be free from contaminants. It should be palatable, have a pleasant aroma, and be appropriately stored and handled to maintain its integrity. Regular nutritional testing and careful observation of the haylage’s appearance, smell, and texture will help ensure it meets the dietary needs of your horses and supports their overall health and well-being.

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