The lowdown on Devon Haylage the Forage for Healthy Horses - article written for Your Horse and Country Magazine

There are several farm businesses across the country who have now diversified into producing haylage, some doing a great job producing forage that is suitable for horses and some not such a  great job  which can ultimately cause a drop  in people’s confidence that haylage is a good choice.  At Devon Haylage, we believe that as a producer of horse feed we have a responsibility to provide a well-made, consistent forage product that is nutritionally suited to horses.  We own and manage all of the land used for producing Devon Haylage so we have complete control of the production system from ‘seed to sale’, right through from selecting specific varieties of grasses to grow to delivering with our own lorry direct to the customer.

Our ethos is simple; we believe that discerning horse owners have the right to purchase a consistent, high quality forage product that has been produced honestly with the needs of the customer in mind.  We ultimately have three sets of customers, the end user (the horse), their human caregiver and the owner/manager of the outlet at which the haylage is sold.  But they all share common prerequisites; the haylage must be of quality, be nutritionally suitable, be of good value for money and consistent throughout the year.  This is what we believe we are good at and what has facilitated Devon Haylage to become such a well-known and trusted producer.

Much of our marketing focuses on the education of the horse owner to scrutinise the forage that they feed to their horse.  Forage should not be simply regarded as ‘gut fill’.  It plays an incredibly significant role in the equine diet and combined with the staggering quantity that an average horse eats in forage over the year, it makes sense to place more importance on getting the forage right than being overly concerned with what concentrates are fed.  Even if horses in moderate work are fed enough quality forage then nearly all of their energy and protein requirements can be met by forage alone!  Feeding plenty of quality forage is not only more cost effective than feeding poor quality hay or haylage and then having to supplement the diet with high levels of concentrates but it is healthier for the horse as well!

We make three different types of haylage.  The first is made from specially selected varieties of ryegrass which are left to mature before cutting when the seed heads are fully formed.  This makes a high fibre haylage with adequate energy levels.  We also make an increasingly popular Timothy haylage.  Timothy is a native grass with naturally lower sugar levels than ryegrass.  Our third type is made from traditional pastures that include a wide range of native grasses such as Yorkshire Fog, Sweet Vernal grass, Red Fescue and Foxtail and herbs such as Ribwort Plantain, Knapweed and Birds Foot Trefoil.  

All of the land used for growing our High Fibre Ryegrass and Timothy haylage is reseeded every three years.  This ensures that the grass species are of the type we want, weeds such as docks and thistles will not be present and the resulting haylage is consistent year on year.  The land on which our Native Mix grows is not reseeded as destroying this pasture will remove the wonderful mix of native grasses and herbs which have taken years to establish.

So, what makes a good haylage?  Well, firstly if grass is cut too early in the season when the leaf content is still high, the resulting haylage will be more suitable for cattle having too much protein and energy for the average horse.  Commonly, haylage made by ‘the local farmer’ may be of this type and can give haylage a bad name as people will find their horse having too much energy and possibly loose droppings.  Secondly, dry matter is crucial.  We are often asked how heavy our bales are, but this information is useless unless the dry matter is also taken into account.  It is easy to make haylage bales heavy by simply baling a lot earlier; this is a very expensive way to buy water!  We aim for a dry matter of around 70 – 75%.  This ensures that there is just enough moisture present to enable efficient fermentation to break down sugars but not too much to make the haylage acidic and uneconomical to feed as with wet forage you need to feed more for the horse to receive enough dry matter.

The protein content of forage is generally not much of a concern to horse owners, but it should be!  The ‘crude protein’ value indicated on forage analysis results does not give us much of an idea of the ‘quality’ of the protein.  Crude protein consists of true protein and non-protein nitrogen, the only way to know the quality of the protein in your forage is to have it thoroughly tested to show the nitrogen : sulphur ratio.  A ratio of above 10:1 indicates poor protein quality and extra supplementation with amino acids may be required.  At Devon Haylage we understand how the protein quality can be affected and so we test soils yearly and then ‘feed the soil’ appropriately with a holistic fertiliser to achieve good N:S ratios (apart from the native mix fields which only have farm yard manure).  Linked with this is the problem of the percentage of nitrate present in forage.  When grass is grown using excessive amounts of nitrogen fertiliser which is common practise with producers who simply want lots of grass growth to achieve high yields, nitrates can be present in the resulting haylage.  Excessive intake of nitrates can decrease the bloods oxygen carrying ability which can cause among other things anxiety, breathing difficulties and loss of co-ordination.  Again, due to our soil management practices we have 0% nitrates present in our haylage.  Forageplus carry out all of our forage analysis which can be found on the website www.devonhaylage.co.uk/analysis.

So, why feed haylage?  We are not anti-hay neither saying that haylage is always better but for some horse owners, sourcing a regular supply of good quality hay is hard, for some they have no indoor storage and for some their horse may suffer from dust, mould and fungal spores found in hay and so haylage is an option if they don’t wish to soak hay.  Incidentally, after 6 months storage hay will have negligible vitamin content.  If hay is then soaked to remove excess sugar you are left with nutritionally poor and very wet, heavy hay which some horses will not eat.  Extra feed and vitamin/mineral supplementation will then have to be offered to make up for the shortfall.   For some sugar sensitive horses with metabolic conditions haylage may be the safer alternative.  When grass is baled and wrapped in an air tight environment, the naturally present bacteria will use sugar as an energy source during replication converting it to Volatile Fatty Acids giving haylage its lovely smell.  Hay does not undergo this process and may well end up being quite high in Water Soluble Carbohydrates making it unsuitable for some horses and ponies.  Remember, feeding plenty of quality forage like Devon Haylage could significantly reduce your hard feed costs whilst keeping your horse healthy from the inside out. 

We are passionate about producing forage for healthy horses and have been making haylage since 1997, over the years we have built a reputable status with customer satisfaction at our core. We have stockists right across the south and west of the UK and can also deliver by the pallet nationwide if you don’t have a stockist close to you.  We strive to offer a personal connection with all our customers and are always happy to answer any questions you may have, should you wish to receive a free sample in the post then just email claire@devonhaylage.co.uk or phone us on 01404 813100.