Farming Magazine - August, 2009


Working Horses: Hay for Your Drafts

By Vicki Schmidt

Owning draft horses in the Northeast makes one pay special attention to the weather and nice hayfields this time of year. To those of us who know the work and skill that goes into making the perfect bale of hay, there’s not much more unsettling than seeing a prime field of timothy age past a nutritious harvest, or a field of raked hay ruined by lingering thunderstorms. But what exactly is a great bale of hay for your working draft?

Most horse owners can recognize a good bale of hay, but knowing a few facts about the hay you are purchasing will make it a better complement for your draft feeding program. High-quality hay should be leafy, fine-stemmed and adequately, but not overly, dry. Most of all, it must be free of molds, dust and weeds. It should be at least a light green color and smell fresh. The average working draft thrives on such hay, along with free-choice salt and access to clean, fresh water.

Drafts are considered “cold-blooded” horses. This refers to their metabolic rate, in simplified terms. Drafts use calories more efficiently, and thus need relatively fewer calories to sustain themselves when compared to breeds termed warm or hot-blooded. In addition, being an “easy keeper” is a highly desired genetic trait and signals a lineage that would survive in the wild and with less than an ideal food supply. This is not an excuse to feed your draft improperly, but it does add positive economic viability to a draft, especially those used for farm and forest activities.

The ability for most drafts to use calories more efficiently allows us to feed hay for nutrition as well as for “pure fiber.” Working drafts on our farm receive a combination of hay that is high in nutrition, as well as an ample supply of “maintenance” hay that is essentially empty in calories. While hay of this quality provides little viable goodness, its high-fiber content is satisfying to the horse’s digestive system. Ample dietary fiber also satisfies a horse’s need to graze, and works to keep your horse’s desire to chew from turning into vices or digestive disorders.

Hay made with the seed heads at peak for the desired species primes the proper nutrition for working horses as well as broodmares and growing foals. Made for horses, by horses. With the horses the best judge of its quality!

Horses are mostly grazers, and in the wild horses will graze for over 15 hours a day, and will travel an average of 26 miles in one day while searching out food. But horses also have a genetic tendency to browse and will nibble on buds, small trees and bark. Browsing provides grazers with high fiber and allows for efficient digestion, as well as the burning of calories for warmth in cold temperatures. Drafts are often described as “little furnaces that never shut off” and like all horses, they produce heat at all times unless they are sick or injured. Fiber digestion fuels the production of warmth, without adding unnecessary calories or nutrition. For this reason, balancing the quality of hay for working drafts will depend on the use of your draft, combined with its needs for nutrition.

If your draft is idle, then plan approximately 2 percent of his body weight in hay or other roughage per day. Their total intake should be 1.5 to 3 percent of their total weight a day with a good percentage of this in any combination of hay or grass that provides for balanced nutrition and fiber. For example, a draft weighing 1,800 pounds would need at least 36 pounds of feed a day, ideally in the form of hay or good grazing pastures. Working drafts, and even some idle ones, do well on a slightly higher-fat diet. Adult drafts (and light horses in general) do best on a diet of not more than 12 percent protein with an ideal complement of 4 to 6 percent in fat. Fat for grazing horses, hard keepers or working drafts is most easily added with a cup of sunflower seeds, or a tablespoon or two of flax seed, whichever is most convenient.

Knowing your draft’s average weight and work level will help you plan for your winter hay needs. A quality hay producer will provide bales that are consistent in size, weight and quality. If your bales average 30 pounds, figure a bale and a half a day to keep your draft happy and healthy throughout the winter. If the quality of your hay is less than ideal, you may need to feed more hay or supplement with concentrated feeds and grains. Working drafts often require high-quality hay or grain to replace the calorie demands of their daily work. Also, you want your working draft resting at night, not eating hay continuously in an effort to keep its demand for calories satisfied.

As long as older or late-cut hay is not moldy, dusty or excessively weedy, it makes an efficient chopped bedding for drafts. Our experience is it absorbs moisture better than most wood products, the horses will pick at the aged timothy heads for added roughage if desired, and the best feature is it breaks down efficiently into compost. In almost a decade of bedding with chopped hay, and with over 150 drafts coming through our farm during that time, we have never had one “overeat” and consume its bedding. The resulting compost has provided a near-perfect soil building product to our fields. To date, the only additive has been 2 tons of lime per acre over the last 10 years. Our yield has stayed a little over 2 tons of hay per acre per year, which is the perfect thickness for team-drawn horse equipment. If our hay was much thicker, we would need at least one additional horses per implement for proper work- to-drag ratio, or switch to mechanical production instead of utilizing the drafts.

One final point when considering hay is to realize the nutritive quality of hay can vary greatly. It’s a good idea to have a winter’s supply of your feed hay tested, especially if it’s to be used for hard working drafts, growing foals or pregnant mares. County extension agents in New England can instruct you on sampling techniques and where to send the samples. The test results will reveal crude protein, fiber, energy and mineral content. Combining these results with a compeimentary grain or any needed supplements will benefit your pocketbook, as well as the health and well- being of your working drafts.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manges of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The farm harvests an average of 86 tons of hay a year.