First Cut vs Second Cut Hay for Horses
For horse owners, understanding the nuances of equine nutrition is crucial to maintain their horses' optimal health and performance. One such area of importance is the selection of hay, which forms a significant part of a horse's diet. Typically, you'll come across terms like 'first cut' and 'second cut' when buying hay. But what do they mean, and which one is better for your horse? Regardless of cutting, plant type (legume or grass), species (timothy, orchard, alfalfa), we always recommend horse hay is analyzed for its nutritional quality. A hay analysis will be able to tell you the nutritional value of the hay and anything else- including following the advice of this blog- is guesswork.
Understanding Cuts or Cuttings
The 'cut' refers to when the hay was harvested from the field. First cut hay is harvested in the spring or early summer, while second cut hay is the growth that is harvested later in the summer or early fall. The growing conditions, timing of the cut, and the maturity of the plants at harvest can all influence the nutrient content of the hay.
First Cut Hay
First cut hay, as the name implies, is the first hay harvested from the field for the year. It's grown over the winter and spring, and it's generally cut in late spring or early summer. This cut benefits from the long growing season, which allows the plant to mature. The maturity of the plant results in thicker stems and stalks and a higher fiber content, making first cut hay coarser than second cut hay.
One key characteristic of first cut hay is that it often contains more seed heads, particularly in grass hays like timothy. This is because the hay is harvested later in the timothy plant's life cycle. While seed heads can make the hay more appealing to some horses, others might find the hay too tough or coarse.
First cut hay tends to be coarser compared to second cut hay as it has a longer growing period resulting in mature grasses and seed heads. It is high in fiber and usually lower in protein and energy. This type of hay is beneficial for horses that are easy keepers who maintain their weight well. Its high fiber content can help provide the necessary roughage for a horse's diet and promote gut health.
Second Cut Hay
Second cut hay is typically harvested later in the summer. This cut benefits from a shorter growth cycle, meaning the plants are younger when cut and the hay tends to be leafier, greener, and softer than the first cut because it is harvested earlier in the plant's life cycle before seed heads form. Consequently, second cut hay generally has a higher crude protein content and is often more palatable to horses, making it the best hay for horses with higher nutritional needs, like lactating mares and high-performance horses.
Third & Fourth Cut Hay
In some climates with a longer growing season, it's possible to harvest hay more than twice, leading to what's called third cut hay (or even fourth cut). This type of hay can be a valuable resource, as third cut hay is typically even softer and leafier than second cut hay because it's harvested later in the year when the growing season is slowing down. The plants have a shorter growth period between the second and third cut, which results in a higher leaf-to-stem ratio. This higher leaf content generally translates into higher protein levels and overall energy, making third cut hay the richest of the three cuts.
It's often even more palatable to horses due to its softness and high nutrient content. However, its richness can potentially be too much for some horses. This type of hay can be an excellent choice for horses with high energy needs, such as racehorses or other high-performance horses, or those with specific dietary needs, like older horses that may have trouble chewing the coarser first cut hay.
However, for easy keepers, or horses prone to metabolic disorders like Equine Metabolic Syndrome or laminitis, third cut hay might be too rich and calorically dense. It could contribute to unwanted weight gain or exacerbate their condition. Another factor to consider with third cut hay is its availability and cost. Because it relies on an extended growing season, third cut hay may not be available in all regions. Additionally, due to the extra time and resources required for another harvesting cycle, third cut hay can often be more expensive than first or second cut.
Other Facts Effecting Nutritional Value
It's important to note that the discussion between first and second cut assume that all other factors are equal- that the hay is made by the same farmer, in the same field, on the same farm, with the same equipment, at the same time of day under ideal conditions. There is *wide* variance between hay which means that you may find a second cut of hay that has less nutritional content than a first hay from a different farmer in a different area. Quality hay is not just dependent on whether it's first or second cut, but also on the conditions under which it was grown and harvested. While first cut hay is often thought of as lesser quality hay compared to second or third cuts, this is not always the case. The quality of hay depends on various factors, such as the type of hay - alfalfa hay and timothy hay, for instance, have different nutrient profiles - and the conditions during the growing season. Dry weather, for example, might produce weedy hay, while more optimal conditions will produce great hay.
Well-made hay, regardless of cut, should be free from dust and mold, have a good green color, and smell fresh. Quality hay, regardless of the cut, should be free of mold, dust, and harmful weeds. High quality hay will also have a pleasant smell and a good color. It's also important to note that round bales or square bales don't inherently dictate the quality of the hay. Both can contain either first or second cut hay. What matters is the hay quality, which is why it is important to test your hay so you know exactly what your horse is eating.
Which One to Choose for Your Horse?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer as the choice between first and second cut hay depends on the individual horse's nutritional needs. For horses that need to gain weight, are working hard, or have higher nutritional requirements, the richer second cut hay might be a better choice. However, for horses that gain weight easily or need to lose a few pounds, the first cut hay, with its higher fiber content and fewer calories, can be more suitable.
To ensure you are meeting your horse's dietary needs, it's always a good idea to have your hay analyzed for its nutrient content. Knowing the nutritional content of your hay, together with an understanding of your horse's unique needs, can help you make the best feeding choices for your equine partner.