What is it, why do it, who does it, how often?  This important tool can help horse owners better balance their horse's diets and formulate a least-cost ration.

Are you just guessing at your horse’s nutritional needs?

You could be wasting money on supplements your horse doesn’t need - or even making your horse’s mineral imbalances worse.  This is because the nutrients in the soil are so variable from one spot to another; therefore it follows that nutritional content of one bale of hay will also vary from another.

Aside from nutritional deficiencies or excesses in the hay itself, in a perfect world, the horse would have an unlimited range of land to roam over, populated with a variety of different grasses growing in different soil types, with easily accessible natural salt deposits.  Today's domesticated horse can't come close to that, and many eat the same meal all year long. This inevitably leads to deficiencies and imbalances. 

What Is Hay Analysis?

Hay analysis is chemical testing that determines the caloric value, fat level, protein, fiber fractions, sugar, starch and mineral levels in your hay.  Depending on the pressing issues with your individual horse, you can select which analyses to choose.  For example, if your horse does not have indications of issues with insulin resistance, you can skip sugar and starch testing.

The bottom line is that hay analysis tells you the nutritional value of your hay.  This is something you can't know just by the type of hay or looking at it, and it could play a pivotal role in your horse’s the health and performance.

Why Should I Do It?

Precise management of the ratios between minerals is especially important for compromised horses.

Owners with horses sensitive to the simple carbohydrate levels in their diet (insulin resistance, EPSM) can only know if their hay is safe by testing it.  For all horses, there are potential deficiencies and imbalances in protein/amino acids and minerals that have wide ranging effects.  This includes resistance to infections, susceptibility to allergies or exaggerated inflammatory response, tendon and ligament strength, skin health, coat color, hoof health, fertility, fetus/foal development, vascular strength, bone and joint health and a host of other things.

In a nutshell, virtually all domestic horses have imbalances and deficiencies in their diets because their diet is so limited.

They consume the same meals 24 hours a day/7 days a week/365 days a year.  Supplements and fortified grains can help avoid overt deficiencies of individual nutrients but they can't protect against decreased absorption due to excessively high levels of competing nutrients.

It's rare for a horse owner or a farm or barn to go down this path without clearly seeing obvious results that make them commit to doing it as routine management.  In short, hay analysis consistently improves health over more commonly used approaches.

Who Does This?

The bottom line is health and productivity

Diet analysis, including hay/forage analysis, is an integral part of management for all livestock producers from chicken farmers to beef cattle operations dating back to the 1920s.  These farmers are producing eggs, milk or meat on a narrow profit margin and they invest in diet analysis for one reason – it pays off.  Healthier animals cost less to maintain and are more productive.  As more horse owners and managers are experiencing the benefits, more are relying on analysis to

How Often Should I Test?

The goal is to match the supplemental nutrients and their amounts to what is specifically lacking in the hay.  If you buy hay in lots that will last you several months at a time, it is definitely economically feasible to analyze each load.

If you buy in smaller amounts, but directly from a hay dealer rather than store, it may still be possible.  Explain to your dealer what you are trying to do and they may be able to reserve a large enough amount of the same load for you to pick up over time as you are able.

Also consider finding storage space for hay.  A 20 x 20 foot area can hold as much as 2 tons of hay.  Storage fees are typically small and pay for themselves in savings from buying a large load rather than on a bale by bale basis.

If you can't come up with an option that makes it reasonable to analyze your hay, regional analysis figures can be used that will at least put you at a better advantage for providing the nutrients your horse truly needs.  First, try contacting your local Agricultural Extension Agent to see if there is information on hay mineral profiles and protein levels.  If they don't have the information contact the state university's Agriculture Department.