by Haley Ruffner
01 July 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628
Coastal Bermudagrass is a hardy pasture and hay crop that thrives in the southeastern US. Many cost-conscious horse owners use it as a less expensive source of hay—although lower in protein, it has sufficient amounts of vitamins A and D, calcium, and phosphorus. Its high fiber and low sugar content make it a sound option for horses prone to laminitis. As a crop, it is also hardier than many grasses, able to withstand heavy grazing and many different types of soil. The only real barrier to its growth is low nitrogen content in the soil, which can cause very low protein content.
Cost is a factor for many horse owners who feed coastal hay. Maybe their horses are easy keepers and have always done well on it, maybe they find that it works best for their program, and maybe they find it easiest to source and feed a less nutrient-dense hay and supplement with a high-quality grain. What we see most often, though, is that horse owners feeding a cheap hay and an expensive grain end up paying far more per ton on total feed cost than those who make a nutrient-dense forage the basis of their horses’ diets and supplement with grain only where needed.
For critics of Bermuda hay, much of the discussion is centered around its purported ability to cause colic in horses. As colic is the number one killer of horses and nearly every horse owner has lost at least one horse to it, this possibility leads many owners to steer clear of coastal hay on those grounds alone. However, the question remains: does coastal Bermudagrass hay actually cause colic, or is that just a longstanding myth in the horse world?
The answer to this question comes down to maturity at harvest time. Bermudagrass grown for hay needs to be harvested at three-week intervals throughout peak growing season to avoid it becoming too stemmy and containing an increased amount of neutral detergent fiber (NDF). This timeline also gives coastal hay the best protein-to-fiber ratio. Hay that is harvested past this three-week point (due to delays in cutting because of weather, poor growing conditions, or scheduling issues with harvesting) contains high levels of NDF, which is linked to impaction colic—the fine indigestible stems of the hay act like hair clumped in a drain, causing blockages. The only true way to measure NDF is to have the hay tested, and horse-quality hay will range from 40–50%. Even though direct correlation to colic is only visible in overly mature coastal hay, most vets will recommend that any horse prone to colic not be fed coastal hay.
Due to this fine line of digestibility and risk in Bermuda hay, along with its lack of nutrients in comparison with alfalfa and other grass mix hays, Aden Brook typically does not distribute it at all. Whereas other grass varieties may end up slightly stemmier or have more seed heads or blooms than desirable if harvest is delayed for any reason, it doesn’t have nearly as much potential to become dangerous like Bermuda hay does. Unless you’re working closely with a farmer you trust or testing for NDF, it’s hard to monitor whether your coastal hay was truly harvested at or before the three-week mark.
Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.
Sources and Further Reading: