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Bermuda Hay – Is It Good for Your Horse? 5 Facts to Ponder

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My friend feeds her horses Bermuda hay, and all of them radiate health; they have shiny coats, great bodies, and tons of energy. Seeing how healthy her horses seem made me wonder about Bermuda’s quality and nutritional value compared to other types of hay.

Bermuda hay is good for horses; it’s high in fiber which helps horses ingest food and absorb nutrients in their diet. However, a diet solely of Bermuda hay wouldn’t provide the necessary amount of protein or all the essential minerals and vitamins horses require.

Some horse owners shy away from feeding their horses Bermuda hay because they believe it causes colic. Is there any truth to this? And how does Bermuda compare to some of the more standard forages like timothy and orchard grass? Let’s find out.

This article is one in a series on horse hay I wrote, the main article being: Horse Hay: An Owner’s Guide.

picture of a bermuda hay field,

Is Bermuda the ideal hay for your horse?

In the southern part of the US, Bermuda grass has been one of the most important hay sources for well over two centuries. Several varieties of Bermuda grasses have been introduced over the years.

Bermuda grass grow easily.

In our region, south Louisiana, Alicia Bermuda grass is popular because it’s perennial and relatively easy to establish without requiring much labor or expense.

Bermuda grass grows well on a wide range of soil. It can withstand harsh soil conditions like drought, heat, and fertilization. It’s also more efficient in utilizing water than most cool-season grass species like orchard grass.

Bermuda hay is reasonably priced.

Bermuda is popular because of its lower costs and availability. Despite this, most Bermuda varieties aren’t far behind the more popular grass species like timothy and orchard in terms of nutritional value.

Mix Bermuda with a legume hay.

Horses benefit by adding 40% to 50% of legumes with your grass hay. This mixture is essential for smooth digestion and adds the necessary amount of fiber and protein to your horse’s diet.

If you are introducing a horse to Bermuda hay, do so slowly. Any potential problems that your horse may develop should show in a few weeks. Otherwise, Bermuda grass is a good hay choice as any cool-season hay.

However, I prefer to feed Bermuda’s early cuttings to my horses and avoid the fine stemmed varieties when possible to aid digestion. Bermuda grass alone does not provide all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients horses need.

Does Bermuda hay cause colic?

Colic, or abdominal pain, is a common symptom in horses. It has several different causes, but many people associate it with Bermuda hay in the horse’s diet.

A few years ago, I quit using Bermuda hay because there were so many rumors about it causing digestive issues such as colic. One cause of colic in horses is the impaction of food at the end of the small intestine.

Impaction colic is often blamed on whatever the horse ate before the horse owner noticed the animal in pain. The Southeast United States seems to have more cases of this kind of colic than other regions.

Coincidentally, Bermuda hay is the most prevalent hay in the South, so most horses that visit the vet have Bermuda grass in their systems. Hence, people began to believe Bermuda causes colic.

However, there isn’t any scientific evidence backing up this theory. In fact, warm-season grass like Bermuda might allow your horse to maximize the nutrient absorption from their diets.

Research suggests that colic occurs when the amount of indigestible fiber in your horse’s diet is too much. Different factors can make fiber indigestible. Notably, low-quality feed or mold and dust accumulated hay is a bad idea for your horse’s digestive system.

Fine stemmed hay may also pose a greater risk of food getting stuck in the gut. Stems can act like a mess of hair in the drain. Since there are many different Bermuda grass types, some of the varieties with more delicate stems like Alicia and Coastal may have given the Bermuda family a bad name.

picture of bales of alfalfa and bermuda hay,

If you’re concerned for your horse’s health, you can opt for Bermuda hay with courser stems like Tifton 85 or Brazos. Another thing to consider for your horse’s diet is the neutral detergent fiber (NDF) content of your hay.

NDF tells how digestible the forage is. The higher the NDF, the harder it is for your horse to digest the food. I’ve come to learn that mature Bermuda hay is most difficult to digest. Therefore, it’s advisable to choose younger cuts of Bermuda for effortless digestibility.

Your horse can experience colic due to an inappropriate change in diet. For instance, a sudden shift to new hay can cause complications because the gut bacteria require time to adjust to the new food source.

Horses also need continuous access to nearby water, even when they are out of the barn. Horses that have to go to the barn to drink water have higher chances of developing colic.

Bermuda vs. Alfalfa Hay

Alfalfa hay generally contains more protein than Bermuda hay. Higher protein content means that horses tend to feel full before they have absorbed all the necessary nutrients.

picture of an alfalfa hay field,

With Bermuda, however, horses don’t get overly energized after eating a small amount and thus eat much more of the hay. Excessive protein can also be very hard on the kidneys, especially if you have older horses.

A diet consisting of mostly alfalfa can lead to toxicity in a horse’s body. Symptoms like excessive sweating, aggressiveness, spooking, and cloudy urine can indicate an unhealthily protein-rich diet.

Mixing alfalfa with Bermuda, which is low in proteins, can help counter this. Horses love alfalfa, so you have to be careful where you store it. If they have unrestricted access to a bale, they will overeat a likely get sick.

Alfalfa is richer in calcium than other types of hay. It is essential to maintain the calcium-to-phosphorous ratio in any horse’s diet. If calcium is significantly more abundant than phosphorous, you might notice your horse getting weak or its muscles trembling.

In contrast, Bermuda has lower but safer concentrations of calcium. It is best to combine both hays to maintain the optimum balance. Lastly, due to the extra calories in alfalfa, there’s the possibility of undesirable weight gain.

An overabundance of calories is a sure way to put fat on horses. If you want to maintain your horse’s weight and make sure they eat enough feed, Bermuda is a better option, thanks to its high fiber content and lower energy levels.

Bermuda vs. Timothy Hay

Timothy hay is another popular horse hay. It is very similar to Bermuda in that it has relatively high fiber content and lower levels of calcium. It is also a good source of minerals like copper and zinc, and like Bermuda, it contains small amounts of protein.

picture of square bales of timothy hay,

However, I’ve had experience with horses that don’t care much for timothy. For these horses, I mix small amounts of Bermuda or orchard and some legume hay to provide a texture they are more likely to eat while still meeting the basic nutrition needs.

Timothy is a cool-season grass. Its typical growing season comes around late summer. But fall is also a good time for seeding as it’s quite resistant to the cold, and there are fewer weeds.

In contrast, Bermuda is best grown from around March to August when the weather is warm. It is perennial and highly-productive in places with adequate moisture, especially the southern US. 

The most significant difference I’ve noticed between Bermuda and timothy is the pricing of the bale. On average, timothy grass yields no more than two cuttings a year, which creates a higher price during peak demand.

Of the two cuttings, the first cutting typically contains a significant amount of weed. Plus, growing timothy consumes a large amount of water as compared to other forages like Bermuda.

Add to that the traditional demand of timothy, and you find that the supply is quite limited. There aren’t as many global growers of timothy either, with the US and Canada being the largest.

As a result, timothy often has to be shipped from long distances, and the import and delivery costs make it an expensive choice for most people. In that sense, I see Bermuda hay as a simple and less costly alternative.

Bermuda vs. Orchard Grass

Orchard-grass is about 12% protein which is a slightly higher amount than Bermuda. It also contains more calories per pound and a reasonable balance of calcium and phosphorous levels.

Like Bermuda, it’s a good grass hay candidate for your horses. However, it lacks in terms of its energy levels, calcium, and vitamin A content. For growing horses, a diet consisting of both grass and legume hays is best.

Bermuda grass is generally more efficient in utilizing water and producing forage. Coastal and hybrid Bermuda often has 30% to 50% more forage per inch of water than tall-growing grasses like orchard grass.

Orchard-grass is also moderately vulnerable to droughts and isn’t as winter-hardy as some other cool-season grasses, which is why it requires special care when establishing.

Similar to Bermuda hay, orchard grass also contains a fair amount of fiber content. Fiber is essential for horses to keep their gut correctly functioning.

High fiber content essentially keeps the gut filled, while lack of fiber can result in various health issues. Orchard also has a sweet smell and a more delicate texture than most Bermuda grass varieties.    

Overall orchard-grass hay is an excellent hay to feed your horses.

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