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Timothy Hay vs Orchard Grass Hay

Bale of high quality timothy grass hay

Timothy Hay vs Orchard Grass Hay For Horses

Understanding Orchard Grass and Timothy Grass

What is Orchard Grass?

Orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) is a cool-season, perennial forage grass native to temperate regions of Eurasia. It is a popular choice among horse owners for its high fiber and nutrient content, along with its soft texture, making it easily digestible for equine digestive systems. Orchard grass contains a balanced ratio of calcium and phosphorus, ensuring proper bone health It is a drought-tolerant species, capable of growing under moderate drought conditions (meaning it can handle dry weather pretty well), and typically yields two to three hay cuttings per year, depending on the specific environment. 

What is Timothy Grass?

Timothy grass (Phleum pratense) is a perennial, cool-season forage grass native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa that is grown extensively in the midwest and eastern side of the US. It has gained widespread popularity as a high-quality forage source- particularly due to its fiber content and palatability. Timothy grass hay is often used as a primary source of forage in a horse's diet, providing the necessary fiber for proper GI function. This grass species contains a balanced ratio of calcium and phosphorus, which is essential for maintaining optimal bone health. Timothy grass typically yields two cuttings per year and requires a significant amount of water to grow, affecting its cultivation in regions with water scarcity. 

How are they different from each other?

Although they share some similarities, there are several key differences between the two species in terms of their growth habits, nutritional profiles, and adaptation to environmental conditions.

  1. Growth habits: Timothy grass is a bunch-type grass that forms dense clumps, whereas orchard grass has a more spreading growth habit, developing tillers and forming a looser sod. This difference in growth habit can influence their ability to compete with other species and their persistence in pastures.

  2. Nutritional profiles: While both grasses are considered high-quality forage options for horses, there are some differences in their nutritional content. Orchard grass typically has a slightly higher calorie and protein content compared to timothy grass. However, both species contain a balanced ratio of calcium & phosphorus, which is essential for maintaining optimal bone health in horses.

  3. Adaptation to environmental conditions: Orchard grass is more drought-tolerant than timothy grass, allowing it to grow under moderate drought conditions. Timothy grass requires a significant amount of water to grow, which can limit its cultivation depending where you are. 

  4. Cutting frequency: Orchard grass generally produces two to three cuttings per year, depending on the specific environment, whereas timothy grass typically yields two cuttings per year. This difference can affect the overall yield and availability of these forages for livestock.

  5. Palatability and digestibility: Both grasses are known for their palatability, but some studies have suggested that orchard grass may have a slightly softer texture and higher fiber digestibility than timothy grass, which can be beneficial for horses with dental issues or those requiring additional fiber.

  6. Maturity and forage quality: Orchard grass tends to mature earlier in the growing season than timothy grass, which can affect the nutrient content and overall quality of the forage. It's essential to harvest both grasses at the appropriate stage of maturity to ensure optimal nutritional value.

Which one is more suitable for horses?

Both timothy grass and orchard grass are considered high-quality forage options for equines, as they provide a balanced source of nutrients, fiber, and energy to support the horses' overall health and well-being. The suitability of one type of hay over the other depends on the specific needs and dietary requirements.

Timothy grass is a traditional favorite among horse owners due to its high nutritional value. It contains a moderate calorie content and is a good source of fiber, which aids in digestion and promotes proper digestive function. This hay also offers balanced levels of calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for maintaining strong bones and teeth.

Orchard grass, on the other hand, contains a little higher amount of protein and calories compared to timothy grass. This makes it suitable for horses with higher protein requirements or those needing a little more energy in their diet. Like timothy grass, orchard grass also provides balanced levels of calcium & phosphorus.

Both timothy and orchard grass are among the two most popular types of hays, and they can be fed alone or in combination, along with legumes like alfalfa, to meet the nutritional needs. The decision to choose one type over the other may come down to more practical factors such as availability, cost, and personal preference.

Nutritional Value of Orchard Grass and Timothy Grass Hay for Horses

Protein, Fiber, and Energy Content

Timothy and orchard grass are two types of high-quality forage that provide essential nutrients. These grasses are palatable and offer a good balance of protein, fiber, and energy to satisfy the dietary needs of horses. Orchard grass grows abundantly and is known to be slightly higher in protein compared to timothy grass. Both timothy and orchardgrass hay are rich in fiber, promoting healthy digestion and supporting a horse's overall well-being. The fact that timothy and orchard grass are quality grass options makes them popular choices among horse owners looking for a reliable source of forage to maintain their horses' health.

Calcium and Phosphorus Levels

Calcium & phosphorus are crucial minerals for maintaining strong bones and overall health. Timothy and orchard grass hays, being high-quality forage options, contain balanced levels of calcium & phosphorus. The calcium to phosphorus ratio in these types of grass hays is typically around 2:1, which is essential for proper bone development and maintenance. Good quality grass hays, such as timothy and orchard grass, ensure that horses receive adequate amounts of these vital nutrients to support their wellbeing. 

Factors to Consider When Choosing Hay & Forage for Horses

Age and Activity Level of Your Horse

The age and activity level play a significant role in determining the appropriate type of hay to provide. Young, growing horses, pregnant or lactating mares, and performance horses have different nutritional requirements compared to older, less active horses or those in maintenance.

Young and growing horses, as well as pregnant or lactating mares, require higher levels of protein, energy, and specific minerals to support growth, reproduction, and milk production. In such cases, selecting a hay with higher nutrient content, including protein and energy, is essential to meet their increased demands.

On the other hand, older or less active horses have lower energy and protein requirements. Feeding them a high-energy or high-protein hay could lead to excessive weight gain or other health issues. It is essential to choose a hay that is lower in calories and protein, but still provides adequate fiber to maintain proper digestion and overall health.

Performance horses or those engaged in intense work require more energy to fuel their activities. Thus, selecting a hay with a higher calorie content becomes necessary to meet their energy demands without overloading their digestive system.

Digestive System Sensitivities

Some horses have sensitive digestive systems, which can make them more prone to issues such as colic, gastric ulcers, or weight loss. When selecting hay for a horse with GI sensitivities, it is crucial to consider factors such as fiber content, particle size, and overall quality to minimize the risk of GI upset and support overall gut health.

Horses with sensitive digestive systems typically benefit from hay with a high fiber content, as fiber plays a vital role in maintaining proper gut function and promoting healthy microbial populations in the hindgut. High-quality hay with a soft texture and adequate fiber levels can help prevent impaction colic and support a healthy GI environment.

Additionally, horses prone to gastric ulcers may require hay with lower levels of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), such as sugars and starches. Excess sugars and starches can exacerbate ulcer symptoms or lead to other GI problems like hindgut acidosis. Therefore, selecting hay with lower NSC levels can be beneficial for horses with GI sensitivities.

It is also essential to provide hay that is free from mold, dust, and other contaminants, as these can irritate the respiratory and digestive systems of sensitive horses. High-quality hay should be clean, fresh-smelling, and free from foreign materials that could cause harm to the horse.

Availability and Cost

Availability and cost of hay for horses can vary significantly depending on factors such as geographical location, season, and of course weather conditions.. In some regions, certain types of hay may be more abundant and, therefore, less expensive due to local cultivation and reduced transportation costs. For example, timothy hay is more commonly grown in the northern United States and Canada, while Bermuda grass is more prevalent in the southern US

Season and weather conditions can also impact hay availability and pricing- in years with favorable growing conditions, hay production can be abundant, leading to lower prices. In contrast, droughts, floods, or other adverse weather conditions can negatively affect hay production, resulting in reduced availability and higher prices.

It is essential for horse owners to stay informed about local hay markets and availability, as well as to develop a relationship with reputable hay suppliers to ensure a consistent source of high-quality forage for their horses. In some cases, horse owners may choose to purchase hay in bulk during peak seasons when prices are lower to secure sufficient forage at a more affordable cost throughout the year.

Tips for Feeding Orchard Grass Hay and Timothy Hay to Horses

Regardless of which grass you choose to feed, it's important to inspect any hay before purchase. In this video, Dr. Worth demonstrates how to tell if your timothy and orchard grass hay is high quality. Here are some steps to follow when assessing the quality of hay:

  1. Visual inspection: Observe the hay's overall appearance. High-quality hay should have a bright green color, indicating that it was harvested at the appropriate stage of maturity. Avoid hay that is overly yellow, brown, or faded, as this may indicate weathering or poor storage conditions.

  2. Smell: Hay should have a fresh, sweet, and pleasant aroma. A musty, moldy, or sour smell is an indication of poor quality hay that could potentially be harmful to your horse's health.

  3. Texture: The hay should be soft and pliable, with minimal coarse or overly mature stems. Stems that are tough or hard to break may indicate that the hay was harvested too late, resulting in reduced nutritional value and lower palatability.

  4. Leafiness: High-quality hay should have a higher proportion of leaves to stems, as leaves contain the majority of nutrients. Examine the hay for an abundance of leaves and minimal stem presence.

  5. Foreign material: Inspect the hay for any foreign materials such as weeds, trash, or debris. High-quality hay should be free from these contaminants, which can be detrimental to your horse's health.

  6. Mold and dust: Check for any visible signs of mold, dust, or mildew. Moldy or dusty hay can cause respiratory issues and should not be fed to horses.

  7. Nutrient content: While not directly visible, it is essential to consider the hay's nutrient content to ensure it meets your horse's nutritional needs. If necessary, you can have a hay analysis performed by a certified laboratory to determine its nutritional value.

  8. Consistency: Assess the consistency of the hay throughout the bale. High-quality hay should have uniform color, texture, and leafiness across the entire bale.

Final Thoughts: Which One Should You Choose for Your Horse?

In conclusion, choosing the right hay for your horse is a critical aspect of maintaining their health and well-being. High quality forage, such as palatable grass hays, plays a significant role in meeting horses' nutritional needs. Cultivating and selecting horse hay, like timothy or orchard grass, ensures a high nutrient content that supports overall health.

Grass is also an essential source of fiber, promoting proper digestion and preventing issues that may arise from inadequate forage. The traditional popularity of certain hays, such as timothy and orchard grass, is rooted in their ability to provide high quality forage for horses in various stages of life and activity levels. As a horse owner, it's crucial to remember that hay is one of the primary components of a horse's diet, and selecting the right hay has a direct impact on their health and happiness.

By prioritizing high quality, palatable grass hays with a good balance of nutrients, you can support your horse's health and well-being throughout their life. Stay informed about the different types of hay available in your region and regularly assess the quality of the hay you provide to ensure your horse receives the best possible forage for their needs.


Read more about how to identify Timothy and Orchard grass hays as well as how to tell the differences between them: 


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  • Susan Ashbrook

    Thank you! Excellent information about the difference. Best I have found so far!

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