Hay Bedding for Horses?

By Vicki Schmidt

As with most everything in agriculture, the goal is to lose less money. Margaret Gardiner summed it up perfectly in her 1999 release of "Losing Less Money Raising Horses," and the message is the same today. When it comes to equines and their "nonfood or fiber" product designation, it's even more imperative to reduce costs and stay competitive without sacrificing the care and comfort of your horses.

Once local farmers know you can use their coarse and "less-than-idealnutritional- value" hay, you'll probably have a good supply if you decide to move to chopped hay for bedding.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

One major expense for horse farms is bedding. Wood shavings and pellets make up the bulk of bedding for equine facilities in Maine. After years of buying sawdust in bulk, paying for delivery, and never being overly happy with the product, I decided to research switching to chopped straw. Eventually we moved to a combination of coarse hay and straw, and now we've found chopped hay - the coarser the better - is as nice a product as any.

Initial research, including the cost of the chopper, told me the annual costs weren't going to be much of a savings for at least four years. However, other advantages made the move attractive. One main reason: buying grass products better supports the local agrian economy. I don't mind supporting the wood products industry, but given the choice, I'll take agriculture. Straw and hay is also more readily available locally than bedding-type wood products.

Secondly, grass products and horse manure break down in the "nutrient management area" (manure pit) very rapidly when compared to wood products. In addition, the pH value of the final product we now spread on the fields is better balanced for growing grass hay and pasture. Question: "Have you ever seen grass growing under a pine tree?" Wood products are much more acidic than hay and straw, and we have experienced increased savings by substantially reducing our liming expenses. After six years of using chopped hay and straw for bedding, our soil tests do not show any need for adding lime or other nutrients in order to maintain the fields for optimal production.

Check your bedding hay with as much scrutiny as your feed hay. Select hay for chopped bedding that is free from mold, dust, weeds and other undesirables, such as sticks and wood.

The biggest hurdle was the initial cost of a bale chopper. Spending a few thousand up front for a piece of equipment I wasn't sure I'd be keeping made me nervous. To test my theory, I used a bush hog on flakes of hay to chop it. This was quite labor-intensive, but it gave me a product to experiment with. Aside from great entertainment for some of the guys at the farm, after a week of bedding stalls with my new "chopped straw" I felt comfortable in making the commitment to buy a chopper. A friend also chopped some hay for me with an older corn chopper, which also proved it could be a useful and positive product for chopping bedding.

I began shopping for a bale chopper, and with no used ones available close by, I purchased a new Agromatic 13 hp chopper from Butch Craig and Son's in Auburn, and we're happy with its dependability and ease of use. If your farm does not have enough horses or need for bedding to warrant the purchase of a chopper, a group farm purchase or rental of one a few times a year might be the answer.

For my working horse farm, which averages 20 drafts at any given time, chopping grass products for bedding is more efficient, and cheaper, than sawdust, shavings or wood pellets. In addition, now that the local farmers know we can use their coarse, lower-quality and older weed-free hay, we have a steady, reliable supply.

Other factors that fueled the decision to switch to chopped hay and straw for bedding:

1. Wood pellets absorb nicely, but are expensive and have specific cleaning techniques that working students and barn help had a hard time adapting to, so the product was often wasted.

2. Bulk sawdust and shavings were nice, but our facility was not convenient for blown-in loads, and remodeling to accommodate them was not an option.

3. Our sawdust supplier wanted to get out of the "small farm" business and contracted most of their sawdust to a bulk supplier. In addition, it was not dry and therefore didn't absorb well and often froze solid in colder weather.

A few things to take into account when considering chopped hay or straw for bedding include: maintenance of the chopper; the rare instance of a compulsive eater who consumes the bedding; dust issues when chopping; and finding weed-free, dust-free hay. Fortunately, none of these have been an issue for our farm.

One final note: Choppers use a fuel-fired engine, so the potential for fire hazard cannot be underestimated. If overheated or otherwise not used properly, there is a high risk of fire. Always use the chopper in an area where it is not a danger to hay or horses. The choppers do come with a small fire extinguisher, but given hay's ability to easily catch fire and quickly spread, keeping several large fire extinguishers and a water supply nearby is highly advised.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The 100-acre working farm specializes in drafts and crosses for work, sport and show.