Forage is the most natural and least expensive feed for horses. Feeding a forage-based diet supports natural grazing behavior and optimal gut health in horses. As such, forage should form the basis of your horse’s diet, with supplemental feeds added only to address any unmet nutritional requirements. [1]

Equine diets often include some combination of pasture grass and hay as forage sources, with the proportion shifting throughout the year as pasture becomes more or less available.

The amount of hay versus pasture in the diet is also influenced by the health and abundance of the available pasture, as well as the individual needs of the horse.

While pasture has the advantage of being nutritious and economical, hay can be bought, stored, and fed year-round. Additionally, a hay-based diet makes it easier to monitor your horse’s forage intake and choose the most suitable forage for them.

Hay and pasture have different nutritional profiles, which must be factored into your horse’s diet to prevent nutrient imbalances. Because of their nutritional differences, it is also important to transition between these forage sources slowly to prevent digestive upset.

Hay vs. Pasture Comparison

Pasture refers to fresh grasses and plants that horses graze on directly from the ground. The nutritional content of pasture varies depending on geographic region, time of year, weather conditions, plant species, soil status, and management practices.

Hay refers to grass or legumes (i.e. alfalfa) that are harvested, dried, and stored for later use, especially when fresh pasture isn’t available. The nutrient content of hay varies based on factors similar to those influencing pasture grass, as well as the timing of harvest and the duration of storage.

Despite the significant variation between different sources of hay and pasture, there are some general differences between hay versus pasture, including:

  • Moisture: Pasture contains more water than hay; 70 – 80% water in pasture vs 10 – 12% in hay
  • Vitamins: Hay is lower in vitamin A, C, and E than pasture
  • Protein: In early growth stages, pasture is higher in protein than hay
  • Energy: In early growth stages, hay is lower in energy than pasture
  • Fiber: Hay is higher in fiber than early growth stages of pasture
  • Digestibility: Pasture is more digestible than hay
  • Non-structural Carbohydrates: Hay is lower in sugar and starch than pasture
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Water Content

One of the most pronounced differences between pasture and hay is their moisture content. Hay is usually dried to contain less than 20% moisture, whereas pasture typically has around 80