What is haylage?

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A bale of second cut haylage prior to being wrapped.

Haylage is grass, grown and cut in just the same way as if it was going to be made into hay. However, rather than having to spend a week lying out in the field drying out completely, it is made into bales sooner before all the moisture has evaporated. By baling the grass sooner, more of the beneficial nutrients and digestable energy are conserved, and the number of dust particles and spores are much reduced.

Once the bales have been made, the grass is then immediately sealed in multiple layers of white plastic wrap, which prevents any oxygen getting into the bale as well as protecting it from the weather. As long as the grass has been harvested at the correct time, and is not too lignified, a mild fermentation will take place over the following four to six weeks, During the fermentation, the soluble carbohydrates in the grass will be converted into lactic acid by the lactic acid producing bacteria (lactobacilli) found naturally in suitable grass (a process called anaerobic respiration). It is important that as much oxygen is squeezed out of the bales prior to sealing them because the presence of oxygen will promote aerobic respiration which will result in spoilage.

Once the fermentation process has completed, there will be no oxygen inside the bales and the lactic acid will prevent any mould growth during storage. It is important that the grass is given enough time to complete the fermentation process before it is opened, or the bale will be unsuitable for horses. Some haylage producers choose to apply an additive to the haylage. All this additive does is supply an excess of lactic acid producing bacteria which will attempt to increase the speed at which the fermentation process occurs. However, we believe that this is unnecessary as long as the correct grass species are used and that they are cut at the correct time.

Once the bales have completed the fermentation process we will send samples from each batch we have produced off to a laboratory to be analysed. This testing will determine the nutritional levels as well as identifying any moulds or spores that may be present that could affect the horse. If we are satisfied that the haylage meets our stringent standards, it is ready to be delivered to customers!

Why feed haylage?

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A pony tucking into a bale of Swanmoor Haylage.

It has long been accepted that forage should make up the staple part of a horses diet to ensure that their digestive system can work properly. Traditionally, this forage has been supplied as dry hay. Good quality hay is indeed an excellent source of forage for horses, however, in the UK it is extremely hard to make high quality hay due to our climate and unpredictable weather. This is not to mention the cost of obtaining good hay in the UK, the best of which has to be imported from warmer climates at immense cost.

In the USA, hay can often be cut on day 1 and baled on day 2 or 3, before it has been bleached by the sun and all the goodness washed out of it. In the UK, it normally takes a week or more to get the hay down to sub 15% moisture levels, by which time the hay is a yellow / brown colour as a result of bleaching from the sun, and most of the goodness has gone. What you are left with is a product that is lacking in nutrients, and is full of dust and mould spores. If the hay is baled a little early, the number of mould spores will increase during storage (as the hay heats up). It is hard to estimate exactly how many horses in the UK suffer from respiratory problems as a result of feeding poor quality hay – but suffice to say if your horse is coughing, it is highly likely it is a result of them having an allergic reaction to the spores in the forage you are feeding.

These spores and dust particles will reduce your horses performance as well as simply making them cough. The allergic reaction inside the horses lungs cause the alveoli to constrict and swell up, reducing the horses ability to breathe in deeply and get sufficient air into it’s lungs. In severe cases, this can result in recurrent airway obstruction (RAO or more commonly known as ‘Heaves’).

Some people think that you can overcome the problem of dust and mould spores in hay and haylage by soaking it (or even steaming it). However, in our opinion this is a solution to the problem rather than a solution to the cause. The dust and spores still exist, just they will be swallowed rather than inhaled and much of the nutritional value of the grass will be washed (or steamed) away. It is also a time consuming and messy task to have to do every day.

Advantages of haylage instead of hay

  • Haylage is an excellent source of fibre, essential for your horses digestive system to function properly (fibre is required to ensure that food is able to move through the horses digestive system).
  • Haylage is dust free!
  • Horses are grazing animals – ie. they naturally eat little and often. Slowly eating a net of haylage is better for their digestive system than quickly eating a bowl of hard feed.
  • Haylage is scientifically proven to be more easily digested than hay. This means that more energy is available to the horse from haylage compared to a similar sample of hay.
  • Haylage bales are more palatable than hay and has a sweeter smell – horses will eat it every last bit rather than leaving much of it.
  • Haylage is more cost effective than hay.
  • Haylage has a more consistent analysis than hay and a more reliable supply is available.
  • Horses prefer damper forage – many horses will dunk their hay in water before eating it. With haylage there is no need to soak first.
  • Haylage can be easily stored outside and opened when needed.
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A quality bale of Swanmoor Haylage (Racing Quality)