Heatwaves, Torrential Rain and Forage – A long Winter ahead?

Heatwaves, Torrential Rain and Forage – A long Winter ahead?

Written by: Dr David Marlin 

For anyone with horses the recent heatwave probably brought a mixed blessing. On the one hand holidaying in the UK was better than usual, although very popular; at one stage it was reported that Devon and Cornwall were “Full”. At home BBQs were put to very good use. For our horses many owners were spared the normal Summer UK cycle of putting them out and getting them in and wondering whether to put on a light rain sheet. On the downside, the hard ground meant many peoples training was interrupted and some events were also cancelled due to hard ground. Whilst the UK heatwave has broken and most people are now experiencing wetter and cooler weather, medium range weather predictions suggest we may get another period of hotter than normal weather and that unseasonably warm weather may last into October.

But possibly the greatest impact of this years weather so far, including the recent heatwave, has been on pasture. In the early part of the year grass growth rates were below average. Then in Spring with a period of rain and sun we had very high growth rates. These then dropped off dramatically with the heatwave; high temperatures and low rainfall turning many paddocks brown. As a result many owners have had to resort to feeding next Winters hay or haylage this Summer to horses at pasture. Whilst from a nutritional or health aspect there is nothing wrong with feeding hay or haylage to horses at pasture (ideally by introducing is slowly as the pasture diminishes to reduce the risk of colic), this obviously increases feed costs but also means that owners need to feed more hay to see their horses through this coming Winter.

And of course, if there is little grass for horses to eat in the fields, for those producing hay or haylage it also means there is nothing to cut to make next years hay and haylage.

A hay producer in Oxfordshire said “We have managed one good cut of good quality hay and haylage. We may get one low quality and very low quantity second cut from one field of Lucerne. The grass hasn't grown enough for a second cut yet. We have low grass levels now and are hoping for a warm mild autumn! I predict a huge shortage of hay and haylage next year and I am surprised we aren’t already seeing a price increase. For years people have been feeding this year’s forage early, this year we had clients wanting to feed it a week after it was cut.”

Dr Peter Hastie from the University of Glasgow, “In mid Scotland most of the hay we've bought thus far seems to have a bit more leaf shatter, but doesn't seem too significant. Given the rarity of good weather up here most farmers were well on top of things and didn't let it over-dry much, so the quality does appear good, nice and green and not over-bleached. In general, most in Scotland only do one cut of hay anyway, so yields have been good for that single cut. Most additional cuts will be silage as normally not enough time/weather to get an additional cut of hay given our climate. The main issue over the winter and spring will be supply given most of us have had to break into our winter feed during the summer, so it will be in demand later in the season, which will drive the prices up.”

Depending on how the weather pans out for the rest of the Summer, growth rates may not be sufficient to allow 2nd or 3rd cut. So if hay and haylage are in short supply and quality is lower than normal, what options are there?

If the hay in particular is dry and dusty this could cause or worsen existing respiratory problems. Soaking or high temperature thorough steaming are the obvious options. Be aware that cheap or homemade steamers can actually decrease hygienic quality. Again, if hay is very dry then this can increase the risk of impaction colic so again, soaking or steaming are options to increase moisture content. If nutritional quality is low then this can easily be addressed by adding quality protein sources to the diet such as linseed, but of course there is a cost implication. Another approach that many might consider is adding straw to the hay to make it go further. Adding straw up to around 1/3rd is ok, but again, if dry could increase the risk of impaction colic. Steaming hay increases its nutritional value (how much of the stored energy and nutrients the horse can extract) and its hygiene. Steaming straw has also been shown to improve hygienic quality and this would also be expected to improve its digestibility, palatability and water content.

Whatever happens over the next few months its likely that come the middle to the end of Winter we may be struggling to find good forage and what is available might be of lower than normal quality. If you are faced with low quality forage (either low hygiene, high dryness and or low nutritional value), then steaming is an option which will preserve what goodness is there and increase palatability and digestibility. This is particularly important if you are going to replace part of the forage ration with straw.


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