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Winter Hay Feeding: Considerations for Feeding Round Bales


By Leigh Ballard

Many horse owners feed round hay bales for convenience and economic reasons. A good quality, palatable and dry round bale can give a caretaker a good deal of relief from feeding chores. And often the cost of a round bale is much better than the cost of an equivalent amount of hay in square bale form. However, feeding poor quality round bales can cause problems that outweigh the advantages of feeding hay by this method.

Horses will munch happily on a bale which has been stored under shelter and has remained dry and fresh tasting.  When the hay is first made available to them for the winter season, it might seem that the horses are gorging on their new hay, but they will self regulate their intake. They will decide for themselves how much to eat to stay full and warm during cold weather. As long as the caretaker keeps a bale available, the guesswork of how much to feed and watching to see if a horse is maintaining weight through the winter is mostly eliminated.

On the other hand, a bale that is not of a good quality grass, or is wet and unpalatable, can cause problems for the caretaker. Poor quality hay that is not fresh and tasty does not encourage good eating or provide the best nutrition. Moldy hay can cause digestive upset. The cost of a veterinarian call for colic or other digestive issues far overshadows the advantages of the round bale. Botulism is another potential problem associated with feeding poor quality bales, especially those that have been wet. According to an article about botulism poisoning of some horses in Tennessee, “Botulism is an anaerobic bacteria that produces a toxin that when ingested can cause illness or death in animals and humans. The bacteria can infiltrate hay bales when organic matter decays due to excessive moisture, or when an animal caught up in the hay during harvest decomposes.” While not widespread, it is a distinct possibility and not something to be taken lightly. It is usually fatal if left untreated.

Another issue found with poor quality round bale practices is debris in the bale. Sticks, seeds, briars and stickers may be part of the mix in a low quality bale. Horses bury their muzzles in the bale and sometimes eat a tunnel into it. Their eyes are extremely vulnerable to scratches and injury from debris. Sometimes this can be minor: a reaction to dust, or a little irritation from small hay particles. However, sometimes this can be very serious if a stick pokes the eye or coarse hay stems scratch the eye. If there are stickers in the bale, horses can chew on them before they realize it. The stickers can cause reactions like serious sores in the mouth or on the gums and lips which will need veterinary attention and some time and care for healing. Again, the cost of veterinary attention for these problems overshadows the perceived cost and convenience benefits.

When feeding round bales, consideration should be given to the number of horses in the herd and herd dynamics. Dominant horses sometimes keep less aggressive horses away from the bale, and these horses will lose body condition. For more than four or five horses, it is sometimes necessary to provide more than one bale so that all get their fair share. Also, a bale feeding several horses will last only a few days. This might be good if the bale is offered uncovered because the weather won’t have much time to affect the quality. However, if only one or two horses are eating the uncovered bale, there will likely be significant waste if affected by the weather, i.e. rained on.

The area surrounding where the bale is fed can become a mud pit in wet winter weather. Hooves that stay wet and soft are vulnerable to many problems including abscesses, thrush, and other bacterial infections, as well as problems with keeping on shoes. It is helpful to relocate the feeding area often, or, in a permanent feeding station, provide some type of footing that allows for good drainage. (See article Mud Control, MSHR October 2012)

As always, a good clean source of water should be available constantly to horses eating hay. Good hydration in the winter is key to preventing impaction colic. Tank heaters are good for encouraging horses to drink plenty of water, as is loose salt added to a feed ration at the rate of 1-2 tablespoons per day.


Kentucky Equine Research, “Round Bales: A Square Meal?” An excellent article about harvesting, storing, and feeding round bales.
Raia, Pat, “Botulism Poisoning Claims Tennessee Horses.” www.thehorse.comarticle 25570
Harper, Dr. Frederick, “Botulism May Become a Problem in Horses This Winter,” Animal Science Horse Information Series.
Univ. of Minnesota Extension, “Do Not Feed Moldy Hay to Horses.”

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