Making good forage for the winter starts with the quality of the grass sward. There are no hard and fast rules which dictate the type of grass sward for the best haylage, as it can really depend on personal preference. Many people love hay made from traditional hay meadows which have been grass for hundreds of years. The slow growing traditional grasses and herbs in these swards can make lovely soft, green hay with a scent that evokes a glorious summer day in the countryside as nothing else can. Horses and ponies have been wintering on hay made from these swards for as long as they’ve been domesticated by man, and generally speaking love nothing better in the stable than a full hay net to keep them occupied all day.
On the downside though, hay from these swards is quite low in digestible energy and protein, so poor doers or horses in hard work will need good quality hard feed to keep energy levels and condition up. It also has a tendency to become dusty through the year, and people using it would expect to have to soak the hay from the New Year onwards.
The low sugar level in the grass can mean haylage made from it can fail, especially if done later in the season. Bales can open to clouds of dust if too dry or dark, or dank bitter haylage if too wet which can mean that a whole season’s growth is wasted.
The true haylage grass, which makes horses salivate and kick their doors in anticipation, is Italian rye grass. This crop has been bred over the generations to provide the best possible nutrition for dairy cows, and its high sugar content make it ferment more completely than any other type, giving it a distinctive sweet, nutty smell which horses and their owners love. For fussy eaters, horses in hard work and in need of good condition there is no better forage. Indeed, hay made from this grass is what sustains some of the best racehorses in the country, and it is only the fact that it takes a good week of hot sunny weather to make that stops it being more widely fed.
Whatever grass type there is in a sward, to make the best quality forage the absolute key is to cut it at the correct stage of growth. As soon as grass has been ‘on ear’ (ie the seed head has been visible) for too long, lignin builds up in the stem making protein unavailable and giving the preserved grass a bitter taste. A general rule of thumb is to cut the grass as soon as the ear is fully emerged, although in old, traditional hay meadows there is usually enough variety in grass type to make the ideal cutting window much longer. If you are looking at chemical analysis of hay or haylage, the extent to which the grass has lignified is shown as the ‘D Value’. To make top quality hay or haylage we aim for a D value of around 47. The lower the D value (‘Digestible value’), the less nutritious the grass.
Clearly when making hay the main worry is drying the crop out enough. An absolute maximum of 15% moisture is acceptable, and even then some heating and dust creation will probably occur. If a high sugar grass is baled at around 20% moisture it could well self-combust which could be dangerous as well as destructive.
Haylage has a much wider window of moisture content which will still result in good forage. Depending on grass type, anything from 50 – 85% dry matter can be acceptable. The big problem with haylage production is not letting the wrap get a hole in! Old farmers often say that sheep have three aims in life: to escape, walk on three legs and die. If haylage bales were sentient their motives would be even simpler: to get a hole in their wrap. Birds, rabbits, rats and even cats can damage large numbers of bales in a short time, either in the stack or whilst awaiting carting in the field. Poorly maintained squeezers, badly floored trailers and heavy handed operators can also do a lot of damage in a short space of time. Attention to detail can alleviate a lot of these problems, but enough wrap has to be applied in the first place. Where cattle farmers making silage will usually only put on 4 layers, 8 layers is usual and necessary for good haylage production. Its expensive stuff, but a high percentage of bales with mouldy areas soon makes it seem like a good investment!
It’s a lot to think about, but getting hay or haylage-making right in the summer, can make looking after your horses a lot easier, cheaper and more fun through the winter!