Feeding Horses Hay Cubes Versus Hay Pellets

When it comes to feeding fiber to horses, most usually think of pasture or hay. However, other popular options can include the feeding of hay cubes or hay pellets. Understanding the differences between hay cubes and hay pellets and when to use them can help horse owners make informed decisions about which option may best suit their needs. It is also important to note that both hay cubes and hay pellets can be beneficial to horses, but usually only under certain circumstances.

The Difference Between Hay Cubes and Hay Pellets

Hay cubes and hay pellets are different processed forms of hay. Like forages, they are high in fiber, which is always a good source of energy for the horse. However, they lack the “long-stems” that are often associated with maintaining a healthy equine digestive system. Still, they are good alternatives for some horses under certain conditions. Hay cubes and hay pellets have distinct differences in how they are processed, their overall composition, and their feeding characteristics.

Composition (what the cubes or pellets are made of)

  • Hay cubes are usually made up of coarsely chopped hay. This includes the stems, leaves, and seed heads that are compressed into blocks. They are usually made from a single type of forage, such as timothy hay or alfalfa, but may be mixed.
  • With hay pellets, hay is usually ground down and compressed into small, shaped cylinders, much like many pelleted horse feeds. Hay pellets are usually made from a blend of hays and include other ingredients, like binders (keeps a pellet held together), other additives, and sometimes even grain.

Texture (what the final product will feel and look like)

  • Hay cubes are generally larger in size and more course. They can be a couple inches to many inches in size.
  • Hay pellets are more uniform in shape like pelleted horse feeds. They are much smaller, at ½ to ¼ inch in diameter.

Processing (how the product is produced)

Both methods help reduce dust associated with forage, increase uniformity, and help with ease of transport and storage.

  • Hay cubes are made with a simple process of chopping the hay, then compressing it into cubes.
  • Hay pellets are finely chopped and, using heat and pressure, are formed into the smaller cylinder pellets.

 Feeding Method

  • Hay cubes, due to their texture and size, usually take longer to chew. Thus, they can somewhat resemble the grazing experience for horses.
  • Hay pellets are like pelleted horse feeds. They can often be fed as a complete feed for a certain subset of horses, or they can be used as supplemental feed.

The benefits of feeding either hay cubes or hay pellets as supplements to a horse’s forage or fiber portion of their diet is their uniformity. The quality changes very little between bag to bag, unlike differences between shipments of hay or seasonality of a horse’s pasture.

Choosing Between Feeding Hay Cubes and/or Hay Pellets

Hay cubes and hay pellets can be excellent alternatives under certain conditions. For example, during times of drought or limited availability of hay or pasture, hay cubes or hay pellets can be used as an emergency feed. They are good sources of fiber when traditional forage options are limited.

There are other situations where hay cubes may be preferred:

  • Horses with dental problems, such as missing teeth or having difficulty with chewing long-stem forage, may be a situation for the use of hay cubes. While still coarse, cubes can help promote dental health and replicate a more natural grazing experience (i.e., producing saliva) for horses.
  • Overweight horses or easy keepers may need a reduced amount of forage in their diet. The use of hay cubes can help in monitoring and control overall feed intake.
  • Limited forage or hay is a time when hay cubes may be preferred over hay pellets. As stated, it takes more time to chew cubes (versus pellets), which promotes increased saliva production and makes horses take longer to eat.

Hay pellets, on the other hand, may be preferable in certain situations, including:

  • Respiratory conditions, such as heaves or dust allergies, may see benefits when feeding hay pellets. When compared to long-stem forage and even hay cubes, hay pellets are less dusty, which can reduce the risk of respiratory irritation, thus promoting respiratory health.
  • Senior horses that have more complicated dental problems or greatly reduced chewing ability may benefit from the feeding of hay pellets. Hay pellets are softer and easier to chew when compared to hay cubes.
  • Competition horses or horses that travel often can benefit from hay pellets. Bales of hay take up a lot of space, whereas hay pellets are easier to store, handle and transport. Yet, it is never advisable to change a horse’s diet rapidly, as it can cause colic or other digestive upset. If planning to feed hay pellets (or cubes) when competing, ensure your horse has properly transitioned to that diet.

Both hay cubes and hay pellets can be used in any of the above circumstances. This is not an exhaustive list, but demonstrates that these can be appropriate options for some horses.

Feeding Considerations with Hay Cubes or Hay Pellets

It is important to remember that it is widely agreed that horses need long-stem forage in their daily diet. This is because long-stem forage is critical to maintaining a horse’s digestive tract health. However, like in the above conditions, hay cubes or hay pellets can be used either as a forage replacement, or as a supplement to a horse’s hay or pasture intake.

For a quick review, a mature adult horse is suggested to be given, at minimum, 1% of their body weight per day in long-stem forage. For example, an adult 1000-pound horse would need, at minimum, 10 pounds of long-stem forage in their diet per day. How much of that can be offset by hay cubes and/or hay pellets will depend on the horse. However, some suggest that you could supplement a horse’s dietary fiber intake with hay cubes or pellets, if the 1000-pound horse receives at least 2 pounds of long-stem forage per day. Thus, in this example, a sample diet would be 8 pounds of hay cubes or hay pellets, with 2 pounds of long-stem forage.

Here are some other important considerations when feeding hay cubes or pellets:

  • As mentioned, hay cubes can be quite coarse and difficult to chew/swallow. For horses that have chewing or dental problems, tend to bolt their feed, or have a history of choke, it is recommended to soak hay cubes, and even hay pellets. Soaking in water will help soften the cubes and pellets. Soaking hay cubes can take, at minimum, 30 minutes up to a few hours, depending on their size. Soaking hay pellets can usually take about 15 minutes and is used to soften the pellet, but not make it a mash.
  • Dry feeding. Either hay cubes or hay pellets can be fed dry to those without a history of choking if they have good dental health; however, it is generally best practice to soak hay cubes for all horses and possibly hay pellets, depending on the diameter of the pellet. Like horse feed, hay cubes or pellets can be placed in a feeding pan.
  • Mixed feeding. Hay pellets can be mixed in with horse feed if a horse needs more fiber in their diet. They can also be mixed in with medications or other supplements. However, there are many complete feeds that may be a better choice.
  • Feeding frequency. The reason hay cubes or hay pellets are being fed will influence frequency. For example, if being used as a replacement for forage, it is generally recommended to feed multiple times per day.
  • Prior to exercise . Hay cubes or hay pellets have been suggested as an excellent feed prior to exercise. If fed 30 minutes prior to exercise, it can help buffer the stomach against the splashing of stomach acid and reduce gastric ulcers.

When it comes to feeding hay cubes or hay pellets, it is best to speak with an equine nutritionist. There are many complete feeds available on the market that may be a better fit for your horse(s) and/or situation. Complete feeds are also high in fiber and fortified with many other ingredients to ensure horses are receiving all their daily nutrition. You can learn more about this topic in our What Is a Complete Feed and Does Your Horse Need One article.  

Finally, if you need any advice on your horse’s feeding plan, our team would love to help you with a free, personalized feeding plan!

Article By: Chris Mortensen, Ph.D.
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