Christine King BVSc, MANZCVS (equine), MVetClinStud
Why test your hay and pasture?
Why should you have your hay and/or pasture tested? Because it’s not possible to know its nutrient content any other way. You can generally spot a 'bad' hay or poor pasture just by its appearance, but you cannot know the protein, sugar, and mineral content of a 'good' hay or pasture based on appearance alone — and these components matter, sometimes a lot! In some cases, they're the whole ball game.
Forages, or 'roughage' — whether as pasture, hay, haylage, chaff, hay cubes, or hay pellets — should form the foundation of every horse’s diet after weaning, no matter what the horse does for a living.
Knowing the nutrient profile of your principal forages can make all the difference when it comes to...
If you want to take a deep dive into this topic, then follow these links to specific components of the forage analysis:
Forage testing labs
None of the Australian forage testing labs currently provide a comprehensive, equine-specific package for a reasonable cost and workable timeframe, so I use the following two labs:
1. Feed Central in Toowoomba, QLD
On their current order form, select the Dairy One Feed Test in Step 3 (even though it's designed for ruminants*). In the Comments section in Step 2 directly above it, write that the sample is for horses.
* This package will provide almost everything we need for horses, but it doesn't include trace minerals. That's where SCU-EAL comes in...
2. Southern Cross University Environmental Analysis Laboratory (SCU-EAL) in Lismore, NSW
In their current agricultural price list, select the Plant Testing package PA-PACK-001 (top of page 11) for trace mineral analysis. The current cost is $55 (including GST). This package doesn't include selenium, but I'm working on that...
Feed Central's Dairy One Feed Test is a good option for checking the moisture, crude protein, and starch and sugar content of a forage. Starch and water-soluble carbohydrate content are particularly important for horses needing a calorie-controlled or low-carb diet. By checking the '24 hours' turnaround box, you'll have your hay results the day after the lab receives the sample (unless they get your sample on a Friday, in which case you'll have them on Monday). This test is money well spent if it saves you from buying a load of unsuitable hay.
Trace mineral analysis is important over the long haul, and it's something you should get done on your pastures at some point, but it's not likely to influence your hay-buying decisions the way moisture, crude protein, and water-soluble carbohydrate content do.
Collecting hay and pasture samples
These tests don’t need a lot of material. For hay samples, it’s enough to grab a few representative handfuls from the middle of a couple of different bales. (Make sure you take it from the middle of the slice, not the edges, which tend to be a bit weathered, no matter how well the hay is stored.) Mix the grab-samples together in a clean bucket or feed tub, and then put the blended sample in the collection bag I've given you or the lab sent you. (If you don't have one of the lab's collection bags, just use a ziplock bag.) Squeeze out all the air and seal the bag shut. Write a short description of the sample on the bag with a permanent marker (e.g., mixed grass hay).
For pasture samples, cut several representative handfuls of grass from various places in your pastures. Cut them off at ‘grazing’ height (a few centimetres above the soil), and sample a variety of areas that reflect the predominant soil and grass types in your pastures. It doesn’t matter if an area is well-grazed — in fact, that’s a good place to sample if there’s enough grass to cut — because it doesn’t matter how short or long the grass is; you’re simply wanting to sample what the horses are eating. Mix all of your cuttings together in a clean bucket or tub and then put the blended sample in the lab bag, as described above for hay samples.
The lab will dry the fresh pasture samples before analysis, so there's no need to do that yourself if you can mail the samples the same day or the next. That said, it’s best to wait until any rain or dew has evaporated from the pastures before taking your samples. If you’re collecting your pasture sample late in the day and you won’t get to the post office until the next day, put the sample in a sealed bag in the fridge overnight. It doesn’t have to go to the lab in a cooler; you just want to slow any mould growth.
If in doubt, call me or the lab. The staff at Feed Central's feed testing lab and SCU-EAL are excellent and they can answer any questions you may have about sample collection and processing.