Differences between

hay pellets and baled hay 

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Hay or Hay Pellets for Horses

Horse owners often ask if there are any differences in feeding a hay pellet or hay from the bale? The short answer is “yes”.

Hay pellets are hay that have been ground and processed with heat and steam. It basically just changes the form of the hay. Bermuda pellets are the same as Bermuda hay, etc. But while they are the same type of forage, there are important functional differences, which is why baled (long-stem) hay should be at least 50% of the total forage consumed per day. Therefore, hay pellets should not exceed 50% of the forage consumed.

Baled (long-stem) hay should be at least 50% of the total forage consumed per day. Therefore, hay pellets should not exceed 50% of the forage consumed.

The most important difference is that a horse eating baled hay will drink more water. Baled (long-stem) hay requires more water for digestive processing. Long-stem hay also promotes longer periods of eating time thus promoting more chewing; chewing increases saliva and thus more gut-buffering contributions.

The importance of water is not only for the fundamentals of body hydration but also as a:

  • reservoir for required electrolytes,
  • lubricant that aids in the movement of food through the gut,
  • and body cooling agent and medium for chemical reactions and changes in the cells, etc.

Another consideration is that hay in pellet form is usually a more mature hay thus with higher fiber, lower in protein and other nutrients, and provides less energy. Hay that is more mature brings a higher yield per acre and more profit to the grower.

Hay Pellet Advantages

  • Easier feeding & storage
  • Less wastage – 2-4% for pellets vs 12-24% for baled hay on the ground or 8-12% for hay fed in racks
  • Reduced gut fill, thus less “hay belly”, an appearance sometimes preferred for show horses
  • Smaller poop piles due to water content
  • Reduced body heat production, a possible benefit for working conditions in hot or humid climates

Long Stem Hay Advantages

  • Cheaper
  • Slower feed consumption – horses’ guts are designed for continuous grazing; pellets are more likely to cause “empty gut syndrome”
  • Less likely to be overfed by owners who can get carried away when scooping pellets
  • More water consumed, helping food movement through the gut

There is a bit of folklore that says, “pelleted hay produces less manure than baled hay because it’s more digestible”. This is not true. There is less manure, but it’s because horses consume less water with hay pellets and not due to being more digestible.

A 1991 study compared horses that were fed long-stem alfalfa hay vs alfalfa pellets. The study showed there was no differences in digestibility for energy, protein, fiber, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and the trace minerals copper, zinc and manganese. The researchers concluded that processed hay pellets were almost completely consumed, thus less wastage compared to baled hay. In other words, more baled hay would need to be fed if feeding for absolute nutrient intake. They also commented that baled alfalfa hay would have a higher loss of nutrients due to leaf shatter.

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