Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Haylage for Horses?

What is haylage, you ask?  It is basically fermented hay.  When grass or legumes are cut for hay, they are typically allowed to dry out to maybe a 20% moisture level.  When grass/legumes are cut for haylage, they are baled at a much higher moisture level (maybe 50-60%).  Then the bales are sealed in plastic wrap and allowed to ferment.  This type of product has typically been utilized more for cattle, sheep, and goats.  In fact, North Carolina State University's Cooperative Extension Service recommends against feeding haylage to horses because of the possibility of mold, which can occur if the haylage isn't baled properly or the plastic bag is compromised during fermentation. 

However, I came across an alfalfa haylage product called Chaffhaye.  The website has a lot of information about the product - more than is usually seen, in my experience.  I decided to drink the Kool-Aid and buy a couple of bags to feed Nimo probably almost 18 months ago.  He ate it well-enough, but I could tell it was not his favorite food and when he had the ulcer-scare a little over a year ago, I ended up taking him off all of his feed except for hay for a few weeks.  Because the Chaffhaye was kind of a pain for me to get - I had to meet a dairy goat breeder (the only dealer in my area) in the middle of a parking lot to make an exchange of goods for money.  It was making me feel a little bit like a drug dealer, and it really wasn't convenient at all, so I stopped using it until a couple of months ago when a feed store near the barn started carrying it.

Nimo still absolutely prefers regular alfalfa hay in a bale to Chaffhaye; however, I came up with the idea of letting him eat it out of the bag, so now he thinks he's really getting something special and wolfs down several pounds of it every day:)  (It turns out that Nimo is only smarter than I am sometimes!)

Why don't I just feed regular alfalfa instead, you ask?  It's hard to find a consistently good-quality alfalfa hay in this area.  Sometimes the bales are great, sometimes they are moldy and incredibly dusty.  Even Standlee's compressed bales that I had been getting from a local Tractor Supply store were a little dusty, despite looking really good.  And they were expensive (almost $20 for a 50# bale)

Here's why I prefer the Chaffhaye over regular alfalfa.
  • It's a little cheaper ($16 for a 50# bale).
  • It's not dusty, ever.  It is always nicely moist, but never wet.
  • It's never moldy.  The way Chaffhaye is chopped and bagged means the quality control is pretty good and I've never had a bag look anything other than fantastic.
  • The bags are rain proof.  You can literally store these bags outside in all weather conditions until you're ready to use them.
  • Because it is a bagged hay, I don't get hay all over when I haul it.
  • The Non-Structural Carbohydrate level is 3.5-4.2% on an as-fed basis.  I'm not an expert on insulin-resistance or Cushing's disease, but I think that level of NSC is pretty safe, even for horses that need a low-starch diet.  It's not an issue Nimo has, but I'd like to keep it that way:)
  • It's GMO-free.  In case you didn't know, alfalfa is often "RoundUp Ready," which means it has been genetically modified to not die when Monsanto's RoundUp herbicide is sprayed all over it.  I'm not a fan of GMO crops or Monsanto, so I am happy to buy a product that isn't a part of that cycle.  However, because Chaffhaye is also weed-free, I'm sure there are still chemicals used on it.  I'd buy organic if I could, but I suspect all the organic alfalfa ends up with the commercial organic dairy industry for the cattle and goats.
If you're thinking about trying Chaffhaye, here are a few things you should know.
  •  It's fermented, so that means it smells sort of sweetly sour.  I think it smells OK, but some picky eaters may get turned off by the unique odor.
  • Once you open a bag, you've got 7-10 days to use it up.  In the winter, you can push it a little because of the cold, but in the summer, using it up within a week or so is ideal because the warmer temperatures can push the fermentation process into overdrive and that's when mold can form.
  • The company reports that it does spray the chopped alfalfa with a molasses to jump start the fermentation process.  I mentioned the low NSC level above, but I think it's still important to know about the molasses.
  • There can be white yeast colonies located throughout the bag.  They are usually on the top or the sides.  They can be surprising, but they are totally safe, according to the company, and they are the good yeast just doing their fermenting thing.  Nimo has eaten many of the yeast colonies and never had an issue.
  • It can be hard to get - not very many feed companies carry it and shipping it from the one online place (Countryside Organics in Virginia) I know that carries it is so expensive that you might as well learn how to grow alfalfa in your yard.
So, I'm going to disagree with North Carolina State and say that haylage is OK for horses if you can find a good source like Chaffhaye.


  1. I have never fed haylage or done any kind of research on it but can I ask what is the point of fermenting - does it make the hay more digestible for the horses/goats/cows that eat it? Do you feed the same weight in haylage as you did alfalfa hay? Is there a higher risk of colic that you've found?

    Sorry for all the questions - I have never known anyone that fed it.

    1. Those are great questions, Melissa:) In terms of why grass would be fermented, I think there are probably several reasons. As Lytha mentioned below, weather is a factor. If it's wet all the time, the grass can't be dried properly after it's cut, so fermentation is the only option. According to Chaffhaye's website, fermenting leads to an increase in nutrition per pound over dry hay, although that is in conflict with Lytha's experience, so the jury is still out on that. And I think the other reasons have to do with some of the benefits I listed in my post. It's bagged, so it keeps much longer (18 months according to the website). And it remains moist, so it's easier to chew. Plus the quality control is probably better than for regular hay (although that wouldn't be true for conventional haylage which is baled in the field instead of a manufacturing plant).

      I wouldn't feed Chaffhaye as the entire ration, so in terms of weight, I'm not sure. The website says Chaffhaye is more digestible than regular hay, so it could be that you could feed a little less. However I think that horses should have free choice hay, so I don't like to restrict intake. I also don't think most horses would need an alfalfa haylage as the sole part of their diet. I feed Nimo about 5 pounds a day as a supplement. The website does provide a pretty good nutrional analysis, so you could compare that to what you're currently feeding to see what adjusters you'd have to make.

      As for colic, I don't know any statistics on that. I would introduce this product the same way I'd introduce any new feed to avoid digestive upset, but I wouldn't think there would be any reason colic would be more or less likely to occur if you fed Chaffhaye.

  2. As you know I live in a place where haylage/silage is the main food for almost all horses in Winter. Many horses get no hay at all yearround. But the reason has little to do with nutrition - it is simply the easiest thing to produce in a land that gets a lot of rain. If farmers are lucky, they can make a hay crop that doesn't get rained on. Mostly they don't get lucky, so they simply produce the fermented stuff. Additionally storing it stacked outdoors is pretty convenient, and virtually all horse farms do this.

    The protein and energy is higher in alfalfa haylage than alfalfa, but it has more water so you need to feed more of it to meet the fiber requirement. (I know that doesn't apply to you though because you also feed hay.)

    We have a field of "wrapped then left where it landed" haylage behind our house, and everyday I look out at it and some of the wrappers are half-off, blowing in the wind.

    Since I believe the risks are too high in the production of haylage, I stay away. The Chaffhaye website says, "Chaffhaye is the closest product to natural pasture you can feed your horses" which kind of disturbs me because it minimizes the differences between the two. I would feel safer feeding Chaffhay than what is produced outside my door every year, but 23% protein, for me, is too high. I'm no expert - I'm more of an alarmist with regard to haylage - so I'm curious what others will say.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that haylage is used a lot in Europe, Lytha. I meant to mention that in my post and forgot. I understand why you'd be reluctant to feed haylage produced in the typical manner - there is definitely room for the fermentation process to go wrong. I think the way Chaffhaye does it is much safer and less likely to have quality issues but any time you ferment something (even yogurt), there is the potential for the bad bacteria to get in. Plus even regular hay can end up with mold if it isn't baled at the right time.

      I think this product is really designed for performance horses (and dairy animals) and maybe seniors that have trouble keeping weight on. I wouldn't feed it as a whole ration, though. I like it for Nimo at about 5 pounds a day, especially if it means being able to feed a little less concentrate or grain. I also want to have him eating a variety of grasses/legumes. It's not a good idea to feed only one type of grass or hay and the barn I board at has terrible pasture and feeds a Timothy/orchard grass hay that is of barely average quality, so Nimo really needs a nutritional boost. I am interested to hear if anyone else has experience with haylage - it's not very common here, so it's hard to get good anecdotal evidence about how it works.

  3. As Lytha said, it's pretty common in Europe, and that includes the UK. I suspect the the university is talking about what we in the UK would likely call silage - which is emphatically NOT suitable for horses, being considerably more acid, high in protein and prone to moulds which don't bother cattle, but do bother horses! That is baled immediately after cutting, and would be the type left out in fields - it's lower value and needs less care in storing.
    Figures here are ballpark, but horse haylage is baled somewhere around 65% dry matter, compared to hay at 90% ish. The reason haylage is higher energy, is the increased water content means that the blades are more flexible, and therefore there's less fragmentation of the bits of the grass that have the most calories during the baling process. On the flipside, that extra water also means that the effective fibre content (the dry matter) per kilo is lower than in regular hay, which means to get the necessary fibre/lower gut DE content you'd have to feed more, which would also give the horse more upper gut DE, meaning that you'd have an excess of calories overall.
    When feeding haylage as a primary fibre component, i.e. as a hay replacement, I would nearly always have to reduce hard feed - which is no bad thing usually. Air ferns did not get haylage ever - they got 12 hr soaked hay. Most horses found it palatable, a lot preferred it.
    As to the safety - it's actually safer than 'fermentation' sounds. As it's bagged at a higher moisture content, the moisture and the airless conditions combine to produce aerobic fermentation, which is acid, and inhibits moulds and harmful bacteria.
    The one safety point I would make is that you shouldn't use punctured bags, unless you know when the puncture occurred and it was only a day or so ago, as that would change the acid balance in the bag and allow dangerous bacteria to grow. You will know if you get an off bag - it smells rank.

    Chaffhaye is a reputable supplier - I fed their products on and off for decades, and never had any issues, so I'm reasonably confident in saying that in the UK at least, it's a quality product. Not sure about their GMO stance - in the UK, roundup ready crops are distinctly uncommon and grass crops are NOT currently on the approved list so that isn't a concern here.

    The one thing I would note is that in the UK we feed very little alfalfa, and where we do feed it, it's as a chaff component, or pellets in hard feed. I have literally never in 35 years come across anyone who fed alfalfa hay in the UK. It is available I believe, but seriously, we just don't. I have fed it in the states though. At a guess the very high protein level, is due to the above mentioned lesser loss of the most digestible (and most fragile parts of the plant) because dried alfalfa runs at 15+ percent normally. I too would personally only use alfalfa haylage as a supplement, and provide the bulk of forage as hay.

    1. Thanks for providing your experiences with haylage, FD! I'm glad to hear you've had a positive experience with Chaffhaye. And totally agree that alfalfa is not appropriate as the only source of hay - it's just too much of a lot of nutrients for horses, but I really like it as a supplement.

  4. Could someone please explain to me why everyone is so against protein?

    1. It's not so much that people are against protein in general. It's more of a concern about too much protein. Here is a link that summarizes some of the problems that can be caused by too much protein: However, the more I learn about equine nutrition, the more I think we don't know. The research done often uses small sample sizes, and only one breed or age or gender of horse, and sometimes the studies look at exercise requirements and sometimes they don't. The Nutrient Requirements of Horses by the National Research Council is probably the most accessible and comprehensive book on horse nutrition although Kentucky Equine Research has a lot on their website in the library/articles section. The bottom line for me is that you have to be willing to play around with what you feed your horse and pay attention to signs that might indicate an excess of deficiency. That said, I believe providing a variety of unprocessed foods (like different types of grasses/hay, alfalfa, small amounts of oats if your horse can handle it, chia or flax, etc.) is the best place to start and then adding in small amounts of processed feed as needed to maintain weight or address deficiencies.

    2. Thank you! I'll read that now. I just keep hearing the protein is bad thing all the time and not just online... So I've been wondering. :-)