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The difference between hay, haylage and silage

Roughage for horses comes in different forms. From small bales of dry herb hay to large packages in plastic baled silage or pre-dried haylage. What are the differences in nutritional value between these various types of 'packaged grass'? And: what is best for your horse? Roughage is vital for horses. The fibers from roughage are the main source of energy for the digestive system. In your horse's large intestine, a whole range of microorganisms convert the fibers into volatile fatty acids. These are then absorbed by the intestines and used for energy supply, heat production, building materials and vitamins. Fiber-rich roughage is therefore extremely important for a horse's health.

From ryegrass to natural hay

Most of the roughage we give to horses in the Netherlands comes from grassland. Sometimes this is monotonous 'cow grass' such as perennial ryegrass, which grows in densely planted production meadows. Sometimes that is long-stemmed hay from herb-rich natural grasslands, or something in between. The nutritional difference between the two extremes is huge. This has to do with the composition of plants it contains, the amount of sugar and protein, the amount of minerals and vitamins and the packaging method. Horses naturally eat all kinds of herbs and plants, so roughage of only one or two types of grass does not fit very well.

Packing method

Depending on the weather conditions, dry hay is dried and turned for several days. When it is really dry, the hay is 'baled' with strings and stored in a dry location. This therefore requires several sunny days, sometimes up to a week. And it requires covered hay storage. Silage grass is only dried briefly and then wrapped in plastic. Wet silage is suitable for cows, but not for horses. Haylage silage, also known as wrapped hay, is dried and turned for a few days and then packed in plastic bales. This is a kind of intermediate form between hay and silage.


All roughage that is packed in plastic bales will ferment a little (or more). Due to the oxygen-poor conditions, lactic acid bacteria – which are naturally present in the grass – will ferment the sugars in the grass. The grass must still be a little damp for this, otherwise the process will not go well. Then mold develops. Due to the acidification, the silage or pre-drying silage is preserved and has a longer shelf life. A bit like with sauerkraut or yogurt. Real silage is much too wet and acidic for horses and therefore unsuitable for feeding. Dry silage varies enormously in acidity and moisture content. It is often purchased because it is very convenient to store outside and is supplied in large bales. In addition, plastic-wrapped hay often contains less dust than dry hay.

Haylage: tasty but not great

Many horses find lightly fermented haylage very tasty. But this type of roughage is not very suitable for their special digestive system. The pH (acidity) of haylage is lower than that of hay and grass. This causes acidification in the intestinal system and disrupts the intestinal flora, which is so important for the digestion of the fibres. In addition, a lower acidity ensures that your horse consumes more minerals, such as magnesium and calcium. The minerals neutralize the acid. This can ensure that your horse is deficient in minerals and will extract them from, for example, its bones or teeth.

Nutritional value of hay and haylage

Haylage contains about 20% more water than dry hay. You therefore have to feed more kilos of it to give the same amount of fiber. Dry hay can be given unlimited because it mainly consists of fibres, which is nice because you don't want your horse to be without roughage for more than a few hours. With haylage, which contains more proteins, the risk of overfeeding and fat horses is greater. Dry hay usually contains more sugar per kilo than haylage. Dry silage generally contains fewer vitamins and minerals than hay. But only a analyse of the hay/haylage will tell the real nutrinal value!

Conclusion: rather hay than haylage for your horse

If you have the option to feed dry hay, it is the better choice for your horse. This is due to the more consistent quality of dry hay (no risk of fungi, for example), the lower protein value and better digestibility. Haylage is often fed through larger stables because it is easier to store and cheaper than dry hay. Is your horse in a large stable where mainly haylage is fed? Then it is a good idea to give a six-monthly herbal cure that supports digestion. Herbs such as hawthorn, yellow gentian, wormwood and cat's claw protect the intestinal wall, support kidney function and promote internal cleansing.

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