For a horseman, few aromas equal those of good, green quality hay bales. They are the most important element of the equine diet, unless the horse lives on sufficient pasture. Bales of straw -- yellow in color -- aren't used as forage for livestock, but as bedding. Whether or not you decide to use straw as bedding depends on various factors, including costs in your region. Aesthetically if not practically, most stalls look better when deeply bedded with straw.
Types of Hay
Grass hays vary by region. Common types include timothy, orchard grass, brome grass, fescue and Bermuda grass. Legumes, such as alfalfa, are also baled and used as fodder. Alfalfa is richer and higher in calcium than typical grass hays. Many horse owners prefer a grass/alfalfa mix, so that their animals get the benefits of alfalfa without feeding overly rich forage.
How to Choose Hay
Good hay is green, with small stems and lots of small leaves. It doesn't contain weeds or have many seed heads. Alfalfa is generally darker green than grass hays. Avoid any hay that smells, or appears dusty or moldy. The latter can kill your horse, depending upon the type of toxins within.
The best way to know what you're getting from your hay is by having it professionally analyzed. Send a sample to a laboratory for nutrient value, a service often available through your local agricultural extension agent. Another option is to purchase hay only from dealers who can supply a nutrient analysis.
Square Versus Round Hay Bales
Most horse owners purchase square bales of hay, ranging in weight between 40 and 80 pounds. When opened, the bale falls into sections, called flakes, for easy feeding. Larger, round bales -- ranging from 800 to 1,200 pounds -- are placed in fields containing a significant number of horses. Stables with the proper equipment can store these round bales under plastic and divide them into smaller feedings.
While round bales are safe for ruminants like cattle and goats, think twice about using them for equines. You must ensure that the horses are consuming the round bales relatively quickly, because mold contamination can easily occur. Because these bales are so huge, it's also easier for dead animals, primarily rodents out in the hay field, to get bailed up. The result for animals consuming a contaminated bale is deadly botulism.
Types of Straw
Straw consists of dried stems of oats, wheat or barley after they've been harvested. Horses will nibble at straw, but it won't hurt them to eat it. Unlike hay, it provides no nutrients, but the fibrous material can keep the gut moving. Your best choice is probably wheat straw, if available, because horses usually won't eat it. Avoid oat straw, if possible, because livestock do like to eat it, sometimes neglecting to finish their hay or grain. As with hay, don't use dusty or moldy bales.
Straw has long been the traditional bedding for livestock, especially horses. These days, many stables use shavings, wood pellets and other products as bedding. Much depends upon availability, price, storage capacity and the stable owner's personal preferences. Straw remains the bedding of choice for breeding farms, as there's little dust compared to other bedding types, and foals can't inhale it and possibly harm their immature respiratory systems. If you use straw bedding on your farm, you can often sell your manure pile to mushroom farmers, who won't accept shavings or other types of bedding that take too long to compost.