Extending Your Hay Supply During Drought and Emergencies

Keeping Your Horse Fed When Hay and Pastures are Sparse

During hard times, care has to be taken not to waste hay. Image: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Horses need 1.5 to 2.0 % of their body weight in high quality roughage per day. Ideally, good quality hay or pasture is the best source of this roughage. But drought, storms or other emergencies may make hay scarce. Here are a few ideas to preserve and extend your hay supply.


Finding Hay

The most likely source of good hay is local farmers, but if this is not possible there are alternatives:


  • Organize a group of horse owners and arrange to have hay trucked in from another area.


  • Contact a hay broker. (Expect to pay premium prices however.)


  • Contact your county agricultural extension to find hay sources.


  • Monitor classified ads, bulletin boards and sites like Internet Hay Exchange to find hay in your area.


  • Hay that is one, two or more years old can be fed as long as it is clean, dust free and overall good quality. You can have it tested to be sure that it is providing adequate nutrition. Shortfalls can be made up for by adding mineral or other types of supplements.

Preserve What You Have

  • Have clean fresh water available to your horses at all times.


  • Set up feeding areas so your horses don't waste the hay. Horses are notorious for soiling and trampling hay that they don't eat. Use feeders that minimize the amount of hay that spills onto the ground.


  • If you feed off of the ground try placing flakes of hay on a heavy tarp or plastic sheet that prevents broken stems and leaves from getting 'lost' in the soil below.


  • Don't use wall mounted hay racks or hay bags. Broken stems and leaf fall through the bars or mesh and get soiled and wasted when mixed with bedding materials.(Over the long term it is not healthy for your horse to eat with its head up.)


  • Try alternative forages, but use caution. Some types of hay are not recommended for horses. Sorghum and Sudan grass are not suitable for horses. Historically, oat straw was fed to horses. Ask your veterinarian before trying straw or any other uncommon feed as a forage substitute. Watch for changes in the horse's manure or any colic symptoms.


  • Supplement your horse's diet with feeds like beet pulp, rice bran, soya bean hulls, meals or forage cubes. I like to soak hay cubes to reduce the chance of choke. Wheat bran should be used with caution due to possible mineral imbalances. The Colorado State University Extension offers this information about alternate roughage sources.


  • Haylage can be tricky to feed. Because hay is baled in a wilted, but not dried state, it molds easily and botulism spores can poison horses. Consult your veterinarian for advice if you plan to feed haylage.
This Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs design for a Round Bale Feeder reduces the amount of hay wasted on the ground. The downside of this feeder is that it requires a tractor and bale prong to load the hay from the top.

Avoid Boredom

If horses are bored because there is not enough grazing to keep them busy they may begin to chew on fences, trees and noxious weeds. Often in drought conditions weeds still thrive as the grass dies off. What may look like green pasture may only be undesirable weed growth. Provide safe pasture toys and remove weeds that could lead to problems.

Caring for Drought Stricken Pastures

You may cause more damage to drought stricken pasture land by leaving your horses out on it.
Hooves can compact dry soil further and break drying grass stems. If they are very bored their attempts at grazing may uproot already fragile roots. If possible, keep horses in a 'sacrifice area' where you don't expect grass to grow. Allow pasture to grow several inches high, however tempting it may be to allow horses to graze, once a bit of green begins to show. Some areas of your pasture may need to be worked up and reseeded once the drought has ended.

Feeding and Management Considerations for Horses discusses pasture management, avoiding overgrazing and the need for a regular de-worming program as horses can be forced to eat closer to manure piles than they would normally choose to.