Why Timothy is your horse’s friend

Horses find timothy hay tasty and few will turn their noses up at it.
Horses find timothy hay tasty and few will turn their noses up at it.

How well do you know your grasses? Your long-established horse paddock will most likely be a mix of several plant species, some highly desirable and others you’d prefer to dispatch with a red card.

There will be ryegrass, clovers and an assortment of other varieties, one of which is likely to be timothy.

It seems a strange name to give to a perennial grass which is native to most of Europe. It arrived in the Americas with the early settlers – almost certainly unintentionally – and found conditions to its liking.

It began spreading and was noted by a John Herd to be growing in New Hampshire in 1711.

But the real promoter of the grass was a farmer named Timothy Hanson, who saw its value to farmers. That’s how the grass got its popular name and began its rise in popularity among cattle and horse owners.

Horse owners might like to think they know their oats, but it’s actually better to know your hays. Most horse owners recognise lucerne, or alfalfa, as the Rolls-Royce of hay, with horses finding it highly palatable and rich in protein – at least compared to other hays.

Timothy hay deserves its place in the pantheon of hays and, in many ways, is an equally desirable choice for horses.

Yes, lucerne hay will have higher protein levels, but the reality is that most horses don’t need the levels of protein provided by lucerne, except perhaps broodmares and horses in work.

A canny horse owner after a more affordable option will be looking at hay made from timothy. Why pay for protein your horse doesn’t need? Any excess protein eaten by a horse will simply pass through its system.

Timothy grass (Phleum pratense L.)
Timothy grass (Phleum pratense L.). © BlokenearExeter

Timothy looks like most other grasses, with upright stalks and slender leaves that tend to sheathe the stalk instead of branching out. Its seed heads are fat and tight. It tolerates winter well and is one of the first grasses to make its charge come spring.

It is easy to establish and, given time, will spread and increase in density.

Timothy makes great hay. Horses appear to find lucerne tastier, but few will turn up their nose at an offering of nice timothy hay.

While your lucerne hay will range in protein content from around 17% for early-cut to around 15% for late-cut, timothy sits around 11.5% for early cut, around 9% for mid-bloom (before its seed heads have fully formed) and just 5% for a late-season cut.

It is clear timothy does not offer the same level of protein, but good quality timothy should meet the protein requirements of most horses, provided they’re not in heavy work.

A horse in heavy work simply will not be able to eat enough timothy to meet his daily requirements. Supplementation with a higher-energy feed will be required.

Timothy is an excellent choice for any horse that tends towards laminitis or is considered a good doer, provided they’re not being worked too hard.

Opting for timothy hay is a wise and cost-effective choice, but you need to ensure you’re buying quality stuff. Not only will the protein levels be much higher in the early cuts (including those before the seedheads have fully formed), but the all-important calcium and phosphorous levels are much higher.

It’s crucial to remember that seedheads will appear only in the first cutting of the year, except for the odd late-maturing plant. Don’t let anyone pass off timothy with few or no seed heads as early-cut (before the seedheads have formed) when in fact it’s a late-season cut.

You can safely assume the hay is young if the seed heads still appear tightly packed and less than 3.5cm or so in length.

Seed heads of 7.5cm or more is a clear indication the hay has been baled past its best.

If you’re looking at second or third cuts, you won’t have seedheads to use as your guide.

Instead, apply the rules you would for any meadow hay. You’re after a nice pale greenish tinge and pliable stems. If it’s woody, pale and tough, it’s been baled well past its best.

Aside from that, the risks are comparatively few. The risk of it developing mould or leaf shatter is far less than that of lucerne, provided it hasn’t been baled when too wet.

If no one in your area is growing pure timothy for hay, find out what they are growing in their mix. It could be a lucerne/timothy mix, or timothy might form a major component of a pasture mix.

Remember to buy your hay early, as the winter price is likely to jump, and ensure the hay is cured for at least six weeks before feeding it out to minimise the risk of colic.

As always, introduce any feed change gradually – and this includes any change in hay, even a different cut from the same paddock.


First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in January, 2009.



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