What’s in a Flake of Hay?

by Amanda Morris, M.S.
30 May 2023 | [email protected] | 845.386.0119


If you’ve ever talked to a fellow equestrian about feeding a horse, you’ve likely said or heard something like “I feed 2 flakes of hay and 1 scoop of feed am and pm.” Pretty typical barn talk, and we all have a good idea of what that would look like. Or do we?

Is a flake of hay from my barn the same as a flake of hay from your barn? Hay is hay, right? Putting differences in hay variety aside for this conversation, I will highlight hay quantity and quality as key factors in navigating equine nutrition successfully!

First, we need to identify the volume of forage needed to meet your horse’s daily roughage requirements. Horses have an interesting digestive tract and are classified as monogastric, hind-gut fermenters. Roughage is needed for the fermentation process to provide optimal output for volatile fatty acids, microbiome support, and energy production. The recommended range to follow to meet these needs is to feed 1-2% of your horse’s ideal body weight in forage total per day. Use a weight tape, tailors’ tape, or scale to determine your horse’s current weight (TIP: if you are tracking changes in your horse’s weight be sure to use the same measurement tool for each weight check-in. There can be variation in calibration!) Next, consider your horse’s body condition score. Refer to the Henneke Body Condition Score system to determine if your horse is at an ideal weight, needs to gain, or needs to lose weight. For horses consuming baled forage with limited pasture and in average work follow these guidelines from the National Research Council to determine total forage fed per day:

% Body Weight  Body Condition Goal 
1  Weight loss 
1.5  Maintenance  
2  Weight gain 


For example, a 1200 pound horse in average work should consume 18 pounds of forage total per day, or 1.5% of his/her body weight. If the average flake of timothy hay weighs 3 pounds and is fed at a rate of 2 flakes twice daily, then this horse is only consuming 12 pounds per day. A 6 pound per day deficiency! This could lead to nutrition concerns and weight management challenges. If a horse is deficient in forage and showing weight management concerns, the problem cannot be resolved by simply adding more calories to the diet. We need to support the fermentation process! The solution is to evaluate your hay quantity, followed by your hay quality. 

If you are used to tossing flakes of hay at feeding time I recommend checking in on the weight of those flakes at least once per month and when you get a new delivery of hay. A luggage scale or handheld scale from the hardware store is a great tool to utilize in the barn to answer how much a flake of your hay weighs! You can tie up a flake with baling twine, put a flake in a hay net or garbage bag, then hang that from your scale to determine the weight. 

Next, appreciate that every load of hay you receive, regardless of its origination, will have some variation to it in nutritional quality. We can tell a little bit about hay from visual inspection, but having a hay analysis is going to tell us the nuts and bolts of the nutritional quality we are supplying. The nutritional content can be influenced by weather during harvest, storage conditions, and age of the hay. If hay is poor quality, we may need to feed more compared to good quality hay to derive the nutrition necessary to support our horses.  

The information derived from a hay analysis can be utilized by a nutritionist to balance your horse’s diet. Depending on your horse’s life stage, activity level, and any medical concerns will dictate what quality is ideal for your situation. If you are taking a quick look at a hay analysis to determine quality on similar forages be sure to check the relative feed value (RFV). This number looks at the overall digestibility of the hay. The Market Task Force of American Forage and Grassland utilizes a scale that runs from 75-150 for qualifying RFV for horse hay to a quality standard: 

Quality Standard  RFV 
Prime  >151 
1  125-150 
2  103-124 
3  87-102 
4  75-86 
5  <74 


The higher the RFV, the more digestibility the hay has to offer. This does not necessarily mean the hay is better for every horse, but it is a good general tool to utilize as reference. Avoid hay with a quality standard of 5 for horses, this does not offer viable nutrition.  

It’s easy to toss a few flakes of hay to a horse at feeding time and move on with your barn chores. Take a few minutes to evaluate the value of your feed program through forage quantity and quality to build a successful nutrition foundation! Aden Brook is here to help! We are market experts in forage across the United States. Contact us today and find the ideal forage you’ve been waiting for! 



Amanda Morris is a sales broker with Aden Brook, avid equestrian, and constant learner of the horse.


Further resources: 





National Research Council, 2007. Nutrient requirements of horses: 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.