By Tom Heshion
The difference between “organic hay” and “USDA certified organic hay” can be expensive and not necessarily better. One hay farmer may be more experienced as an “organic grower” and benefit from years of organic fertilization over a second farmer, but not be USDA certified. All the while, the second farmer charges lots of extra money for his USDA certification, while growing weeds throughout his average hay and not applying any fertilization. USDA certification only states that the ground that the hay was grown in shows no signs of chemicals, and hasn’t for 36 months or longer. It doesn’t mean that the hay is any better or more nutritious.
The point is that there is no legal definition of “organic hay” and that USDA certification means nothing about quality, other than that there are no chemicals. There is a description used by the USDA, but that definition is not the only one. It is unfair to say that a hay producer who only uses non-GMO seeds is the same as one who uses GMO seeds. Either could be USDA certified. The first is more organic than the second, and yet may not be USDA certified. In that case, they need to be defined as USDA certified and non-GMO. Quality ratings should be a third, and the most important, rating.
Far more importantly, there is a sequence that should be followed when determining the importance of harmful chemicals. In my view, the most harmful chemicals to horses that are used on hay have not gained recognition. Most mass producers of hay have begun using hay preservatives. It’s no secret that Universities get grants form manufacturers and donors who support their initiatives, so most studies stay away from anything that may critique their large donors. For instance, don’t expect any agricultural college to stand against a tractor manufacturer or agricultural chemical producers. I openly and publically challenge the manufacturers of hay preservatives to fund a study performed by the extensions of the University of Missouri Veterinarian College, the Kansas State University and/or the University of Kentucky. Google “hay preservatives” yourself at: https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=hay%20preservatives
Anyone can read what these preservatives are made of and who manufactures these preservatives. Basically, they are 70% acid and 30% ammonia and dyes. Don’t expect them to get specific. What is shocking is the amount that is required to do the job. They suggest 16 pounds per ton. That is 16 pounds on just 20 bales of hay. I would not drink one cup of that stuff, much less subject my horses to a steady diet of 4/5ths of a pound, per bale of hay. This is a picture of what preservatives can do to a hay baler. They eat right through the finish and into the steel.
The only benefits to using preservatives are to be a more profitable mass producer, while fooling buyers about the quality and, in my humble opinion, destroying the digestive system of horses. I believe that horses can live while digesting some small level of these chemicals. My problem is the high levels needed to do the job on hay that slowly eat away at the horses’ digestive system causing colic, ulcers and cancer, which lead to death. I have not found one person, other than the President of the manufacturing company who makes them, who even suggests that they may be safe for horses. He improperly uses excerpts from studies done at the University of Illinois and Cornell University where he implies that the studies are about his product. After looking closer, the studies were not about his products, at all. They were actually a side note from a study about respiration. He then states his own conclusion, implying that it is the conclusion of these Universities. See for yourself.
In fact, I found numerous veterinary colleges who determined that organic hay was preferred by the horses over preservative-sprayed hay in all cases. There has not been one thorough study done that I can find, and why would there be? There is no money to be made by staying neutral. The only money to be made is by selling the preservatives through tractor magazines and hay farmer newspapers and online periodicals. You will never see them advertised in a horse magazine. I suspect they don’t want horse owners to know that they exist. Currently, there is no law that requires hay growers to disclose the use of preservatives. I think that there should be. There has to be at least one politician reading this. I’m waiting for your call. ;)
In my research of over 400 feed stores and horse stables in California, I discovered that over 94% had “preservative sprayed” hay, and what was shocking was, they didn’t even know it. Only 1 in 400 actually knew the farmer who grew their hay. It’s a brokers’ business to keep that information confident from the buyer, where he found the hay. (In full disclosure, I am both a grower and manager of a sales cooperative overseeing the sale of hay from 62 various hay growers.) Green hay is pretty to look at, but naturally cured hay will typically be (approximately 20% or more) brown hay. Later, I discovered that numerous horse farm owners, when given the chance to convert to organic hay, changed back to green looking, preservative-sprayed hay when customers complained about color, rather than teach their customers the difference, even though (after my visit) they knew the difference. They were all too afraid of losing an unknowledgeable, paying client. That is so sad.
The benefits of preservative-sprayed hay, compared to organic hays, are look, feel, color and protection against mold. To understand why the mass producers use them, there are more reasons beyond the look, feel and mold guard. Here is why; when hay is cut, it is typically around 60% moisture (water in the hay). At the end of a hot day of drying in the field it can be down to 30% moisture. In northern climates, this process can take four days. Hay needs to be around 15% moisture, in order to organically bale it. Rather, at the end of the first day, they bring it into a windrow and bale it at 30% or less, and spray it with preservatives. This allows them to operate faster and more profitably than to allow time to do it naturally, which also requires them to tedder their hay.
Organic hay producers turn their hay over using a hay tedder. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6uzOXWvWiU
This means that they drive their tractors over every inch of their fields one to three times more than a mass producer who uses preservatives. Organic farmers allow all of the hay to cure naturally and reduce the entire field down to 15% moisture before bringing it in. This is the only way to bale hay correctly, without using chemicals, and costs about twice as much money. The downfall to using organic hay is that there is a higher possibility of mold than in “preservative sprayed” hay. In the last 100 truckloads of hay I sent to California, we have had two instances of mold. When buying organic hay, there is a 2% chance of finding mold. Preservative-sprayed hay is no guaranty against mold, but it is likely to have less. As a horse owner, I make it my responsibility to watch over the hay, hire people who do also, and I refuse to use preservative-sprayed hay. NONE of our 62 growers use preservatives.
I think it is sad that the cattle market dominates the hay market and basically doesn’t consider a long life for the animal a priority. In fact, for beef cattle, the shorter the life the better. Our horses pay the price because of the mass production habits of farmers who make hay for both markets. I think it’s worse that the industry doesn’t want to rock the boat and therefore doesn’t hold these hay producers accountable. What seems hopeless is that it takes more than an act of Congress to make a change. Hopefully the internet can actually help us all to spread the word of preservatives.
Hay can be grown through high levels of organic fertilization where the high growth of grass actually overtakes the weeds and weed killers are not needed. That takes out the necessity for herbicides. Growing without pesticides is risky for a farmer, but completely possible. Grass hay farmers use them reluctantly, whereas pesticides are more common in alfalfa. USDA certification guarantees those chemicals aren’t used, but many farmers have already realized that by tending to their hay fields using organic growing priciples they save money by not needing to purchase expensive chemicals. That fact makes a good argument that buying non-USDA certified hay is a fairly safe bet as long as it has not been sprayed with preservatives. Getting to know your grower is the best overall answer.
Buying organic hay for horses is important. However, because the really harmful chemicals are applied while the hay is entering the baler, and the ground that has been tested by the USDA was never touched by these chemicals, it is possible for a farmer to get away with being USDA certified while spraying his hay with preservatives.
This does not sway my position against herbicides and pesticides. But, if given the choice between microscopic levels of herbicides and pesticides that have gone through years of testing, compared to 16 pounds of acid and ammonia per ton that has not been studied (7 pounds per month, per average weight horse), I’d reluctantly choose the microscopic levels that have proven over the years to be risk tolerable, than to knowingly feed my horses a hay supply that had harmful levels of acid and ammonia. I don’t care what the manufacturers are claiming; they have not been diligent by funding research which proves their claim. They should not even make the claim.
In summary, at OrganicHays.com we have everything from old fashioned hay farmers that simply use Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorous to organic growers, some of which are USDA Certified, to
Defining the words “Organic Hay” is simple. Organic hay has had no herbicides, no pesticides, and no preservative use, whatsoever. It’s defining quality organic hay that is a little more difficult. Realize and accept the fact that no herbicides means occasional weeds, and horses have done just fine for millions of years digesting an occasional weed. They know what to push aside and what to eat. Just demand to know the facts in the same way that many of my customers have demanded of me. If you are a good paying and steady customer, we will gladly go back to any of our farms and ask for fertilization verification and sworn statements. We openly challenge our competitors by posting our hay test results on our website under each farm’s photos. We do more than anyone to be open and honest about what “Organic Hay” is, and what is not.
At OrganicHays.com you’ll always know what you are buying.
- Tom Heshion