What is Meadow Hay and When Does Meadow Hay Turn Into Weed Hay?

Milly asked me this recently, and while I was preparing the article, my hay supplier rang to say he was bailing my own hay. We collect directly off the field, so I went down to have a look, having last checked on it in April. I dropped lucky with this guy, after years of manually making our own hay, his land is organic, and botanically diverse. He knows I won’t buy ryes or alfalfa. This year’s hay had chamomile, mint, plantain, yarrow, red clover, cocksfoot, soft brome, some bent grasses, false oat, and smooth stalked meadow grasses among it. I took some photographs to illustrate what I see as decent hay.

                          Meadow Hay

Returning to Millys question then, my first thoughts here are for our conditioning, how we expect the horse to eat every last strand of hay we provide and consider it wasteful if he leaves some. I get that, none of us like wasting money (me included, horses are expensive!), but if he is eating every last strand, it can imply either there wasn’t enough hay, OR the hay is sugary and sweet, which doesn’t mean it’s especially healthy for him. We might reject meadow hay, because it doesn’t look as uniform or pretty as rye hays, or because he fishes out a few pieces throwing them on the floor. But the meadow hay might well have hundreds of times LESS sugar than its rye counterpart and have a whole lot more nutrition both micro and phytonutrients.

                    Rye Hay

We have to consider what a weed actually is. Is it a term for a noxious plant, is it an unknown plant, is it actually a beneficial herb with a role to play in the ecological health of our soil and insect population? does it in fact have medicinal properties that you just weren’t aware of, or do we simply mean a plant that thrives without human intervention? On our farm, nothing is termed “weed”.

Certain plants or herbs may become predominant for many reasons, it could be that the soil condition is not being maintained or is overdone and micro managed. It might be that the land has been over grazed, it could be due to insect population or even weather. It could be natural fluctuations in cycle, so that one year there may be plenty of chicory, while the next year there may be an abundance of mallow another year there may be an abundance of Yarrow. If your pasture and hay fields are being swamped by one plant, try to step back and be objective about why this might be happening.

Looking at the content of our hay then, material that I studied 30 years ago suggests there are different types of hay. Seed hay that would include rye, Clover, Timothy, sanfoin, cocksfoot and Meadow fescues. Some of these we still prize, others are proven unhealthy to the horses’ body systems. Herbal diversity is simply not discussed. It says that meadow hay would be less coarse than seed hay and would have variable nutritional values because of the different types of grasses it may contain – well, good!

Horses did not evolve on standardized, stable nutrition, part of the reason for moving on and seeking different grasses is to find different nutrients to meet their complete needs. Moving forward in time, material from my college courses, 20 years ago, suggest hay should include 50% perennial rye grass (just Aargh!!) 25% creeping red fescue the final 25% should include crested dogs tail, rough and smooth stalked Meadow grass white clover. Well no wonder we have a nation of overweight and sickly horses. At least this does mention a few herbs; chicory Yarrow, burnet, wild garlic and interestingly, comfrey. Under the heading of weeds, they include ragwort, buttercup, dock, thistles, nettles and chickweed – more recent learning for me has me liking those last 4 in pasture and hay, in moderation.

However, the rye, no. We know now it’s a huge trigger for grass related illness, laminitis, EMS, obesity and behavioural changes to scratch the surface. Perennial ryes were enhanced and developed to increase a dairy yield, and can even cause laminitis type symptoms in cows and sheep.

Disease and imbalance prevention

Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants to stay healthy, not necessarily for growth and survival but to stave off or repair disease and disorder – bacteria, viruses, attacks by insects, uv protection etc. All plants contain their own phytonutrients, the key is having a diverse spectrum of plants to provide a broad variety of the nutrients. The properties of these natural chemicals can be passed on to the horse when ingested (or indeed to any consumer, or by other routes of administration).

Here are just some of the effects of different phytonutrients:
anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, analgesic, immunomodulator, anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, hepatoprotective, neuroprotective and CNS stimulant. They fight diabetes/EMS/laminitis, gastro-intestinal disorders, allergies, internal parasites and arthritis. There are researchers investigating the relationship between mono culture or modern, micro managed diets versus herb filled, meadow diets and equine diseases, to help us better understand what we should and should not be feeding our horses.

          Cut Meadow Field

We know that wild horses, will select over 20 varieties of plant material to eat each day. We need to ensure our horses are getting adequate diversity to maintain health, properly herby (or weedy) meadow hays are an important part of this. There seems to be confusion about plant micronutrient content as well, many believing that a horse on pasture and eating hay, needs additional synthetic vitamins and minerals, yet owners are not aware of the nutrients provided in good grazing and hay by plant material. Have a look at this chart, comparing some wild plants to recognised super foods, see what powerhouses you have in your field?

                                                                          Nettle Chart

Agriculture crops versus nature

Meadow grasses and herbs tend to have much deeper roots than cultivated crops. Before you think this is an ecological rant, let’s think about this for a moment, plants with deep tap roots hold different nutrients than turfy grasses, nutrients which are then available to your horse. Yes, old fashioned meadows are great for carbon sequestering but also, they absorb rain water, reducing run off and poaching, and as a by-product, require less irrigation, so lower maintenance and less problems with mud, especially if you rotate hay fields with grazing! If you haven’t seen an example, have a look at national parks and forests supporters facebook post, depicting a cross section of prairie grasses against agriculture, the visuals are shocking.

Tree hay and logs

An old method of providing nutrient diversity as well as more structural carbs, if you can’t access meadow hays, is to supplement with tree hay and barky logs. When branches fall or are pruned, they can be stored in a barn until hay feeding season (or year-round if your horse is on a grassless track) and you can add fresh logs to pasture or stables for them to chew on. In dental terms, this helps the horse with natural maintenance as a bonus.

How to obtain seeds to boost your hay field

If you or your yard make your own hay and want to improve diversity, of course you can purchase seeds and formally introduce them. However, wild herbs are resilient, they are survivors. You can often look out for hedgerow herbs and meadow grasses (look back at past newsletter issues for ideas or see my facebook page healing herbs – natural plant remedies for horses) and as they go to seed and are drying out and shedding, take a paper bag, bend the stalk over and push the plant head
into the bag, then shake to remove the seeds. You can scatter manually from your bag, across a wet field, not worrying about loses as you haven’t had to pay for them.

If you have enjoyed this article, feel free to pose herb related questions on the group “thoughtful equestrians – friends of concordia equestrians” or on my page, mentioned earlier and be sure to tag me to draw my attention, though remember I am a herbalist not a botanist or horticulturalist. If I feel I can make an article of your question, I’ll write about your topic.

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