Different types of hay

The bulk of the hay grown throughout the world is used to feed larger animals such as cattle, horses, sheep, goats and exotics such as camelids or zoo animals.  Increasingly however, hay is being grown in the US and the UK especially for small furry pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus.

In the field, the cows eat the long grass, the sheep eat the shorter grass, and then the rabbits nibble at the new grass too close to the ground for the sheep.  Hay and other forage fed to larger animals is often much coarser and stalkier than the kind of hay small furry pets like.

Grass Hay

Well kept meadows, especially those in the mountain regions, produce fragrant, herb-rich and nutritious haycontaining a wide range of grasses.  Other grasses are grown specifically for their particular feed value and include Timothy, Ordhard Grass or Cocksfoot and Bermuda Grass (in the US).

Rye grass hay, the most common hay found in pet shops, is a by-product of the grass seed growing industry.  Grass hays have the best balance between calcium and phosphorous of all the forages.  Meadow hay has a better spread of other minerals and trace elements than single grass hays.

Legume Hay

The most popular legume hay, and grown exrensively in Australia and the US, is alfalfa.  High in fibre, protein and calcium (as are all legume forages), it balances out the grain portion of rations used to fatten cattle and improve the milk yield in dairy cows.  Legume hays contain very high levels of calcium when compared to phosphorous and are therefore descibed as having a high Ca:P ratio.

Diseases caused by spoiled small leaf clovers such as melilot, or white clover in the grazing, have made people wary of clover hays, but red clover hay is very nutritious.

Cereal Grass Hays

Cereal grasses can be cut for hay while young, when the seed heads are green, or when the seed heads are ripe when the hay is more akin to straw.

Seeds and grains are high in phosphorous and low in calcium.  As they grow, the calcium level increases and the phosphorous levels diminish in the long, green, swaying cereal grass until the seed heads start to form.  With the growth of the seed heads, the phosphorous rich seed heads start to turn the Ca:P balance back to inverse again.

As with all forages, the young green shoots are high in protein, vitamin C, vitamin A and low in fibre.  The seed heads are at their most fattening when ripe and the stalks/leaves are low in protein, high in fibre, low in vitamins C & A when golden and mature.

Balancing forages

You cannot go wrong with grass hay, it has the perfect balance of fibre to protein and calcium to phosphorous.  Cereal hay can be balanced with herb and legume hay such as alfalfa to good effect.  The leaves of legume hays are high in protein whereas the stalks are high in fibre.  Cereal grass hay seed heads are high in carbohydrate, especially when ripe and golden, however the golden leaf and stalk are rich in balancing indigestible fibre.

If you let your rabbit eat only cereal grass seed heads and alfalfa leaf, it is likely to get fat and have a sticky bottom.  If you feed nothing but high fibre stalky forage such as straw, then your rabbit would be malnourished as straw does not contain enough nutrients and should only be used as bediding or a boredom breaker to complement the main diet.

Herbal Hays

The only true herbal hay is a good meadow hay, of which Alpine hay is probably the best.  Herbs have, however, been traditionally dried and stored either as forage for winter use of for medicinal use by rabbit keepers and other stock keepers.  Most forage herbs have a calcium to phosphrous ration of Ca:P 2+:1 which places them juct at the high end of the Ca:P ratio for rabbits.

In addition to calcium, herb forages are rich in a variety of minerals, trace elements and other factors.  Nettle hay for example is rich in iron, and also in silica, making it a good hay to feed to pregnant or lactating does and sows.  The silica, not only helps add shine to the coat, it is also important for joint health.

Many of the forage herbs traditionally fed to supplement the rabbit diet are astringent or ‘drying’ in nature and were traditionally fed when a rabbit ‘scoured’ (had diarrhoea).  In the UK the most common herbs used for scouring were shepherd’s purse and raspberry leaf which is also useful for pregant and lactating does and sows.  In Germany and Holland, the herb of choice for scouring is plantain.

Silage or Haylage

Fermented hays suitable for horses and farm animals are not suitable for rabbits, guinea pigs and other small furries as it comes in large bales and spoils within several days once opened.  The risk of listeriosis in goats from eating silage deters many from using it and there is also a clostridium risk.

Dried Grass

A perfectly balanced and very healthy food for rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus.  Introduce slowly at first.  Dried grass keeps well and can be purchased relatively cheaply in 15kg bales from horse feed merchants.

Dried alfalfa, also available in 15kg bales from horse feed merchants, often contains molasses which are fattening, and preservatives, so it shouldn’t go mouldy, but is is high calcium and high protein.