Oat Hay For Horses- All You Need To Know

Last Updated on January 27, 2022 by Urska

Hay is an essential component of a horse’s diet. As natural foragers, a horse’s ability to travel and graze freely is taken away when humans place them in captivity. Most horses will consume around 1.5%-2% of their body weight in forage (grass or hay) per day. Even with lush spring grass, 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. But what about oat hay for horses? Find out what you need to know about oat hay and if it’s a good option for you:

Hay Varieties

Horses receive their nutrition from forage. The hay owners feed is dependent on their horse’s special nutritional needs or the availability in a specific area. Hay comes in different varieties, including oat hay, legume hay, or grain hay. Legume hay is typically used as supplemental food. It is high fiber, high crude protein, and provides up to 120% more energy than oat hay as a comparison! Grass hays are very popular and include Orchardgrass, Bermuda, and Timothy. Oat hay falls under the grain hay category. Although higher in fiber, grain hays have lower protein content and can be higher in NSC (non-structural carbohydrates, or sugar) content.

Hay Varieties

For more detailed information about hay varieties.

Oat Hay For Horses

Oat hay is not suitable for all horses. Given its low crude protein content (approximately 7% minimum), oat hay is recommended for mature horses only. It is relevant to know about hay options with high protein and the importance of protein in a horse’s diet. Oat hay is a popular choice in the western half of the United States. It is made from oats, but the levels of digestible energy vary greatly depending on the maturity at harvest.

For optimal digestibility and high nutrition content, oat hay should be harvested while immature. When the seed head develops, the starch content of the hay greatly increases.

Nutritional Content

The stage of harvest determines the bulk of hay’s nutritional value and content. For example, late harvest oat hay will lead to shattered grains (gone), 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 who may be prone to laminitis or suffer from insulin resistance are not good candidates for oat hay. The NSC content is higher than other hay options, which can lead to complications or weight control issues. Oat hay has a high vitamin A content- 10 pounds of oat hay per day can meet a mature horse’s vitamin A needs. It has a Calcium: Phosphorus ratio of approximately 1.3:1 (with 1.6:1 being the “ideal”). Oat hay also has a higher Magnesium level, with low Calcium.

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 combat the low protein, oat hay is often fed in combination with alfalfa. This results in 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 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 for unworked horses without adequate energy expenditure.

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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. It 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 Alfalfa Hay

Although frequently fed together, oat hay can also be grown with alfalfa. This improves the crude protein content of the oat hay. although alfalfa isn’t the only legume it can be grown with. Planting and cutting both works well as NSC levels are brought down in the final bale and essential amino acids are increased. This combination is great for growing horses or horses needing weight. It’s also a great combination of horses suffering from gastric ulcers.

For more information on treating ulcers in horses.

Standlee Alfalfa and Oat Cubes

Another option is the Standlee alfalfa and oat cubes. 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. Soaking cubes is a great option for horses with dental issues as well. Hay cubes can help increase water consumption and they are easily weighed/monitored with more precise nutrient information.

Final Words

Although oat hay can be very beneficial for some horses, especially when paired with alfalfa, it is not 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 from your local agriculture extension agency. If you have questions about your current forage program, your equine veterinarian 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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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 baled for storage. Oat straw is another type of oat product that can be made from oat plants.

Is oat hay low in sugar?

Oat hay is known to have high sugar content. Because of that is not recommended for horses with insulin resistance and may not be the best choice for a sugar-sensitive horses. It should be fed in combination with other types of hay or grains, so it will not cause excessive rise in blood sugar level.

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. It’s a form of grass 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 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 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 prior to use.

Is oat hay good for a horse?

Oat hay can be fed to mature horses. Because of it’s 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’s 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.