Choosing the Best Hay to Feed Your Horse this Winter

In much of the country, with colder weather comes dormant pastures. Even if a pasture has a lot of residual grass, once the pasture has gone dormant, it will provide very little nutrition.

Additionally, pastures stay healthier and more productive if they are not grazed while dormant. As a result, we need to look at stocking up on hay for the winter months. This hay will provide the bulk of the calories for most horses.

How to Choose the Right Hay for the Winter

When choosing hay, there are several key attributes that should be evaluated. One of the first things that most people look at is the cost per bale but cost per bale is often a poor way to evaluate hay. Instead, start with evaluating the quality of the hay. Hay that is soft is more easily digested which translates to more calories available to support your horse. Forage is the ideal source of energy for horses to use during cold weather because it helps horses maintain their body temperature (learn more here). If a hay analysis is available, it will help you to quantify hay quality; learn how to understand a hay analysis here.

After evaluating quality, look at the actual average weight of the bales. I’ve rarely had someone tell me bales weigh anything other than 50 pounds and rarely do the bales actually weigh 50 pounds. It is very common for the weight of the bales to be overestimated. Weigh a couple individual bales to determine average bale weight. Then, convert the price of hay to price per pound (price of bale divided by weight of bale) to more effectively compare between sources. You may be surprised to find that a hay that is lower in price per bale may end up being more expensive in the long run. Investing in good quality hay will go a long way toward keeping your total feed bill down.

When looking at buying hay based on cost per pound, round bales can be a very economical way to purchase hay compared to small square bales; however, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind when considering round bales.

Round Bale Feeders

A round bale fed without use of a feeder results in significant hay waste; up to 40% of the bale can be wasted, and this will negate purchase savings. Feeders should be chosen with care to ensure they are horse safe, as many feeders meant for cattle are not safe for horses. Round bale feeders, which incorporate a roof, will also keep the weather from degrading the quality of the bale. Round bales left out in the rain and snow that are not consumed quickly are at risk of developing mold. Moldy hay increases the risk of horses developing allergies, respiratory issues and colic. Care needs to be taken to keep round bales intended for horse use stored out of the elements. Also, moisture levels at which a round bale is put up is very important to prevent it from molding during storage.

Finally, the risk of horses contracting botulism is higher when feeding round bales. Discussing the botulism vaccine with your veterinarian is advised when planning to feed them.

There are upsides to feeding round bales other than cost, such as free choice hay availability and reduced daily labor required to feed hay.


A focus on hay quality is key to supporting your horses through the winter. Round bales can be a valuable part of your nutrition program if the potential downsides of round bale use can be managed effectively. Notably, ensuring a good quality and mold-free small square bale supply is just as important if that is the form of hay you choose to feed. Not all small square bales are guaranteed to be horse quality.

Article By: Nicole Rambo, Ph.D.
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