Hay v Haylage 

Hay and haylage are the most common forms of preserved forage fed to horses in winter or when stabled. Whilst both provide a great source of fibre for horses, they have distinct nutritional differences as a result of how each one is processed. So, what are these differences and what do they mean in terms of providing the right nutrition for your eventer? Lisa Elliott MSc – Nutritionist at Castle Horse Feeds – provides the low down on hay and haylage to help you decide which is right for your horse. 


Hay is essentially dried grass. It is normally cut between May and August at a more mature stage of growth than haylage and left to dry out completely. As a result, the moisture content of hay is very low, but during the drying process some nutrients can be lost.  The Dry Matter (DM) content of hay is around 80-95% and the sugar content is generally around 10% but can be slightly higher or lower depending on the species of grass cut.

The loss of nutrients and the more mature nature of hay means its Digestible Energy (DE) content makes it a low-calorie forage.  Hay can be an excellent choice for good-doers, and lower level eventers provided it is good-quality, earlier cut hay, but for horses with higher energy requirements it may need to be supplemented with extra feed. Hay is great for feeding ad-lib without the worry of potential excess weight gain. 

Hay is economical as it is inexpensive to buy and if correctly stored will stay in good condition for a relatively long period of time. Hay is, however, prone to the accumulation of dust and mould spores, meaning it is not ideal for those horses with dust allergies, a compromised respiratory system and those that are stabled frequently. It can be soaked so that the dust spores stick to the hay and are no longer airborne, but this means that they are swallowed instead of inhaled, and the quality of the hay is reduced.  Some recent research has shown that soaking hay increases bacterial contamination, leading to a reduction of hygienic quality which could compromise the health of your horse.  Better dust reduction and quality can be often achieved through steaming to decrease mould and bacterial numbers.


Haylage is grass that has been cut earlier and at a younger stage of growth than hay and left to wilt instead of completely drying out. This means haylage has a higher moisture content than hay and a lower DM content, typically around 50-65%.

The lower DM content compared to hay means that a higher volume of haylage needs to be fed to ensure the horse receives sufficient fibre. This is important because adequate fibre is essential for healthy digestive function, warmth and for maintaining condition.  As a general guide, haylage should be fed at a rate of 1¼ times more than hay, but this can depend on the DM content of the haylage. 

Due to its high moisture content, haylage needs to be wrapped to prevent spoilage, by creating an anaerobic environment. This anaerobic environment means that fermentation takes place which results in a drop in the pH to inhibit spoilage causing organisms. 

During fermentation, sugars in the haylage are converted to lactic acid and volatile fatty acids (VFA), meaning that contrary to widely held belief, haylage is normally lower in sugar than hay. Haylage is, however, higher in protein, and more digestible than hay giving it a higher DE content. As a result, horses generally tend to do better on haylage, so it’s often not ideal for good-doers or those prone to weight gain unless it is a high-fibre, lower DE variety. Furthermore, the acidic nature of haylage because of fermentation means that it may not be ideal for horses with gastric ulcers or hindgut sensitivities.  Haylage is great for horses in regular work, young potential eventers with greater energy and protein requirements for growth and older eventers who need an easily digestible source of forage. 

Although haylage is generally more expensive to buy than hay, its higher digestibility means that the reliance on extra feed in winter can be reduced, making it quite cost effective. This also means that with haylage, some eventers in training or competition can potentially be maintained on forage alone, provided their micronutrient needs are met with a good quality, nutritious balancer.  

Additionally, haylage is dust free so is an excellent choice for horses with a compromised respiratory system.  Once haylage is opened, however, it must be used within a few days, so it is not always economical for owners who have just one or two eventing horses. 

The most crucial factor when choosing hay or haylage is to make sure that it is good-quality. Hay and haylage have different benefits which need to be considered alongside your eventer’s individual nutritional requirements. Feeding both, however, is often a fantastic way of adding variety to your horse’s diet and can help encourage natural foraging behaviour.  

If you would like a free diet plan for your horse simply go to and fill in your horse’s details. In return you will receive advice and recommendations from Lisa to ensure that you’re feeding your horse a nutritious, balanced diet for optimum performance. Or if you have any other nutrition related questions, contact Castle Horse Feeds at or call 01497 570345. 

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