Oat Hay for Horses – All You Need to Know!

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Last Updated on March 28, 2023

Finding the best source of forage is essential to maintain the health and well-being of your horse. But is oat hay for horses a good option?

Feeding a form of forage is an essential component of a horse’s diet, especially when your horse does not have free access to grass. As natural foragers, a horse’s ability to travel and graze freely is taken away when humans place them in captivity. We are responsible for the health and welfare of our horses, and providing forage is a vital part of that.

Most horses will consume around 1.5%-2% of their body weight in forage (grass or hay) per day. Even with access to plenty of grazing land, most owners will feed or supplement their horses with hay at some point throughout the year. Constant access to forage helps maintain optimal gut health and performance.

So, what about oat hay for horses? Is this a nutritious feed for horses, and which types of horses and situations is it best for? Let’s find out everything you need to know about oat hay for horses and if it’s a good option for your equine buddy!

What Types of Hay Can Horses Eat?

Horses receive the bulk of their nutrition from forage – this is also known as roughage and is made up of fibrous plant material. Fresh grass and plant material can form part of your horse’s forage intake, but you may also need to supplement this with dried forage such as hay.

The type of hay that horse owners feed is dependent on their horse’s nutritional needs or the availability in a specific area. There are three main categories of hay – grass hay, legume hay, and grain hay.

Grass hay is made from a mix of grasses which are cut and dried before being baled. Most good-quality grass hay is nutritionally balanced, although it may not meet the energy requirements of horses in hard work. Grass seed mixes for hay normally include Orchardgrass, Bermuda, and Timothy.

Legume hay is typically used as supplemental food. It is high in fiber, high in crude protein, and provides much more energy than grass or grain hay. Legume hay can cause nutritional imbalances if fed as the only source of forage, so it is commonly mixed with grass or grain hay. Alfalfa and various types of clover are normally grown for legume hay.

And finally, we have grain hay, which includes oat hay. Also known as straw or cereal hay in some countries, grain hay is often regarded as a byproduct from the grain harvesting process and is normally baled for use as animal bedding. However, some animals find cereal grain hay quite palatable, and under the right circumstances, it can be used as a source of forage.

Hay Varieties

For more detailed information about hay varieties.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Oat Hay for Horses

When deciding what type of hay to feed your horse, it is vital to weigh up which type will meet your horse’s nutritional requirements.

Oat hay cut from a mature crop of oats has a low crude protein content, meaning it is a low-energy source of forage. This makes it a good choice for horses that are overweight, obese, or have weight-related health problems. However, it should never be fed to horses that are underweight or those that are expected to carry out intense physical work.

It is also important to bear in mind that the levels of digestible energy in oat hay for horses can vary greatly depending on the maturity at harvest.

For optimal digestibility and the highest nutritional and energy content, oat hay should be harvested while immature. However, at this stage, the hay is high in NSCs (Non Structural Carbohydrates), which can trigger laminitis in overweight horses. When the seed head develops, the starch content of the hay greatly increases.

Another factor to consider is whether you are feeding just the stems of the oat plant, or the oat grains as well. Oats are very energy dense and should only be fed to horses that require a high-energy diet.

Nutritional content

The stage of harvest determines the nutritional value and content of oat hay for horses. For example, late-harvest oat hay will contain very few oat grains, with a reduced nutritional value as a result. Nitrate levels can also increase after drought effects or post-frost harvest. If nitrates are a concern, your local agriculture extension office can help with testing.

Horses that are prone to laminitis or suffer from insulin resistance are not good candidates for oat hay that contains a high proportion of grains. The best hay for insulin-resistant horses is oat hay that has been cut after the grains have been harvested – you may find this marketed as chopped oat straw. This has a lower NSC content and can help satisfy your horse’s hunger without causing weight gain.

For a detailed analysis of oat hay harvesting and nutrition levels of each stage of maturity, you can view lab results here.

Powerful Duo: Oat hay and alfalfa

To balance out the protein levels, oat hay is often fed in combination with legume hay such as alfalfa. This results in a high fiber and high protein diet, great for working and growing horses. Alfalfa is quite palatable and also easily digestible. Looking beyond the macronutrients, alfalfa is also a good source of Magnesium, Calcium, and Vitamin A.

However, feeding this popular combination may result in lower consumption of Copper, Selenium, Manganese, and Vitamin E. Oat hay also lack Copper, so the combination of hay severely lacks Copper content.  But most hays will fall short somewhere, just like local soils may have deficiencies.

These vitamins and minerals can be supplemented in feeds or through the use of salt mineral blocks. With the increased digestible energy in this combination (particularly alfalfa), this forage diet may “heat up” some horses. This can be problematic for behavior reasons or unworked horses without adequate energy expenditure.

Find the Best Treats for Horses

Manna Pro Bite-Size Nuggets

The point of time at which hay is cut can make a huge difference to the nutritional value of the finished product. All horses have different nutritional needs, so it is important to weigh up the pros and cons of each type of hay first.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common cuts of hay for horses, and weigh up their advantages and disadvantages.

Oat hay

It is important to first determine if your horse is a candidate for oat hay (and its NSC content). Owners must also decide if it will be fed as a primary source of forage or filler hay.

Oat hay for horses can be coarse and more stalky than grass hays, resulting in less palatable forage with possible waste left behind. Whether purchasing from a local feed store or private hay grower, find out what stage/maturity the hay was cut and if any testing is available.

Oat hay that was cut early, before the grains were fully mature, will be higher in energy and may be unsuitable for overweight horses. Oat hay cut at the same time as the grain is harvested will be much lower in energy, but may also lack some vital nutrients.

Oat alfalfa hay

As well as frequently being fed together, oat hay for horses can also be grown with alfalfa. Legumes such as alfalfa lock nitrogen into the soil, improving the crude protein content of the oat hay.

Planting and cutting these two types of hay together works well as NSC levels are brought down in the final product and essential amino acids are increased. This combination is great for growing horses or horses needing to gain weight. It’s also a great combination for horses suffering from gastric ulcers.

For more information on treating ulcers in horses.

Standlee Alfalfa and Oat Cubes

Another option is to feed Standlee alfalfa and oat cubes as part of your horse’s bucket feed. They are made of coarsely ground forage for a moderate protein diet with the same benefits as traditional oat/alfalfa blend hays. The crude protein amounts to a minimum of 12%, 1.5% minimum crude fat, and a maximum of 26% crude fiber.

These can be a good option for older horses that struggle to maintain their body weight through the winter months. Soaking forage cubes can make them easier for horses with dental issues to chew and digest. Feeding hay cubes in this way can help to increase water consumption and keep your horse hydrated.

Final Words – Oat Hay for Horses

Although oat hay can be very beneficial for some horses, especially when paired with alfalfa, it is not a one-size-fits-all hay. Specific nutritional requirements will help horse owners determine the ideal hay or hay mix for their horses.

You can learn more about optimal hay choices for your horse from your local agriculture extension agency, as they will know what types of hay are widely available in your area. If you have questions about your current forage program, your equine veterinarian or a qualified nutritionist can help advise based on your horse’s medical history and disposition. When changing hay, like feed, ensure it is a gradual process to avoid upsetting the horse’s digestive system.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is oat hay?

Oats are a grass that is native to Europe and Asia. Oats are one of the most common cereals in the world and are used to make flour, but they are also used to make other products such as feed and hay. Oat hay is produced by growing oats plants that are then cut and dried before it is baled for storage. Oat straw is another type of oat product that can be made from oat plants.

Is oat hay low in sugar?

The sugar content of oat hay will vary according to when it is harvested. Oat straw, which is the stem of mature oat plants, is low in sugar and can be a good source of forage for horses that need to lose weight. Immature oat hay, cut before the grains are mature, is much higher in sugar, and should never be fed to horses at risk of laminitis.

Is oat hay nutritious?

Oat hay is one of the best nutritional sources of soluble fiber. This is the type of fiber that lowers cholesterol, lowers blood sugar, and helps prevent heart disease. It is also the most versatile form of fiber. It is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. It is a great source of iron and vitamin E. Oat hay is a form of grain hay, and its energy and protein levels are similar to timothy hay which contains around 9% of protein and 4% of fiber, respectively. The vitamin A level in oat hay is higher than in other grass hays and it also seems that vitamin A (retinol) is absorbed better from oat hay than from other grasses. However, oat hay is also high in the amylase enzyme, which can cause digestive issues in some horses.

Is oat hay better than alfalfa?

When compared to alfalfa hay, oat hay is lower in crude protein as well as in digestible energy. The nutritional value of oat hay may be increased by using a variety of forage species that are known to have higher nutrient levels than oat grass, such as alfalfa.
Forage selection is based on the needs of the animal at the time of year when the hay is being fed. For example, hay that is suitable for use in winter should contain more protein and digestible energy than hay that is fed during the summer months. Alfalfa hay can be grown from late spring through mid-summer, whereas oats must be planted in early spring and harvested in the fall. Oats are most commonly grown for winter feeding, but may also be fed in the summer if the forage is cut and stored before use.

Is oat hay good for a horse?

Oat hay can be fed to mature horses. Because of its high fiber content, horses may benefit from the roughage, but some horses will have digestive issues if they are not used to it. Oat hay contains ≤0.15% crude protein and is usually fed to mares in the early gestation period. It is a good source of energy and fiber that also benefits older horses. However, when feeding your horses oat hay make sure nitrate levels don’t exceed appropriate levels in order to avoid health issues.

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