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HOW TO: Reduce Hay Waste

Hay is for horses, but sometimes horses take this phrase a bit too far - how many times have you caught your horse peeing on their yummy hay? Seeing as forage should make up the foundation of the equine diet, hay wastage is a serious concern from both a nutritional and economical aspect. So, how can we get the most out of the hay we're feeding our horses?

Indoor Feeding

Flakes from small square bales are commonly fed indoors, but hay waste can still result indoors as well. When fed loose inside, 7% can be wasted, compared to only 1% with a feeder (Grev et al, 2014).

The use of slow-feeders indoors can also help hay last longer, maximizing chew time and minimizing time without feed. Many types of hay feeders are compatible with small square bales, such as hay nets, hay bags, hay pillows and various tub-based feeders.

Placement within the stall can also make a difference. Try placing your horse's hay in an area that is less likely to get contaminated with manure, or trampled. Some horses like their hay near their stall door, so they can eat and look out, or near a window or neighbour. Other horses, such as those who are "stressy" about food, may be stressed by their hay being near a neighbour. It is imperative to remember that this behaviour is driven by the horse's perception that food is a limited resource, or by poor socialization, and does not take away from the fact that horses are social animals. These behaviours are symptoms of a learned stressor, not a reflection of the horse's natural behaviour. Management practices which reflect natural conditions and allow for the horse to be in an environment which as closely mimics their natural environment as possible are key to managing stress in the domestic horse.

Outdoor Feeding

Increased hay waste is both nutritionally and economically inefficient, especially during the winter months, when horses may increase their hay intake to thermoregulate.

Horses who are not blanketed have been reported to increase their hay intake by 0.2% BW to maintain their body condition during the winter - this is around an extra kilogram per day (DeBoer et al, 2020).

Studies investigating strategies to reduce hay wastage when feeding hay outdoors have noted a similar trend: free-feeding hay results in not only higher waste, but also lower intake.

Round Bales

Martinson et al (2012) compared the resulting hay waste from 9 common round bale feeders to free-feeding a round bale (Control). When no feeder was used, 57% of the round bale was wasted. Hay intake was lower (1.3% BW DM), likely due to the large amount that is wasted instead of ingested. These two factors combined can represent a substantial loss of economic and nutritional efficiency for your horse!

All investigated feeders reduced hay waste. The design of all of the feeders used provided a physical barrier between the horses and the forage, allowing for reduced trampling and urine/manure contamination. Feeders that offer greater restriction result in less hay waste, as evidenced below.

Additional Considerations

  • RAO/heaves risk: Feeders which allow the horses to form burrowing holes in the hay may contribute to risk of RAO if the hay is moldy or dusty. Burrowing holes were observed with the following feeders: Hay Hut, Ring, Tombstone and the Tombstone Saver.

  • Moisture content: The Cinch Net resulted in greater moisture content than the other feeders (29%, while all other feeders were <15%). Moisture content greater than 15% increases susceptibility for mold development, while also being unpalatable.

  • Other: The Waste Less feeder resulted in some cosmetic rubs on the sides of the face.

Square Bales

A similar study was done with square bale feeders by Grev et al (2014), noting similar findings: feeders which provide a greater physical barrier have greater waste reductions.

The horses in this study were provided hay at 2.5% BW per day, so unlike round bale feeding, there was a confined maximum of hay that they could access each day, which likely reflects differences in wastage between square and round bales.

Additional Considerations

  • Moisture content: Not reported for the square bale feeders. While the basket and rack feeders have similar designs to the round bale feeders and thus may keep moisture levels <15%, the slat feeder may have different moisture levels. The design of the slat feeder does keep the hay off the ground.

  • Natural feeding head positions: Most of the feeders do not reflect the horse's natural low head position when eating, which must be considered. Eating at ground level (but not necessarily ON the ground, due to the risk of contamination and ingestion of ground materials) has many benefits for overall health. For instance, when hay is fed above the horse's face, there is a risk of dust inhalation and eye irritation. While all hay will have some degree of dust, feeding quality hay can help reduce the amount of these irritants that your horse is exposed to.

A Note on Group Feeding:

To minimize stress and negative social interactions, ensure that your feeding management does not limit the availability of forage, whether by quantity (not enough fed) or access (not enough feeding stations).

In their natural setting, horses are not generally territorial or agnostic to each other. When a resource is in limited supply, horses in natural conditions don’t often become aggressive or protective, as food is often easily accessed in their natural environment, they tend to spread out rather than fight for it. The perception of limited resources can lead to resource guarding, which is what contributes to a lot of common "aggressive" behaviours within domestic horses.

A resource refers to something the animal perceives as valuable, often something needed to survive (ie food, water, etc). For instance, a large group of horses having to share one round bale, one water trough, or a too-small shelter.

To reduce resource guarding, we recommend having ample forage and water available at all times, reducing animal density around feeding sites (by increasing the number of feeding sites and increasing space between feeding sites), and keeping horses in stable, compatible social groups.



Furiex, C., Bourjade, M., Henry, S., Sankey, C., Hausberger, M. 2012. Exploring aggression regulation in managed groups of horses Equus caballus. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 138(2012): 216-228.

Goodwin, D. 1999. The importance of ethology in understanding the behaviour of the horse. Equine Veterinary Journal 31(s28): 15-19.

Grev, A.M., E.C. Glunk, M.R. Hathaway, W.F. Lazarus, and K.L. Martinson. 2014. The effect of small square-bale feeder design on hay waste and economics during outdoor feeding of adult horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 34: 1,269-1,273.

Kruger, K., Flaugher, B. 2008. Social feeding decisions in horses (Equus caballus). Behavioural Processes 78(2008): 76-83.

Martinson, K., J. Wilson, K. Cleary, W. Lazarus, W. Thomas and M. Hathaway. Round-bale Feeder Design Affects Hay Waste and Economics During Horse Feeding. 2012. J. Anim. Sci. 90: 1047–1055.


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