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Timothy, Bermuda, Alfalfa: Horse Hay Compared

Last updated: October 4, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Choosing the right type of hay is crucial to your horse’s well-being. As an owner, understanding the various hay options is essential to ensure you select the best nutritional fit for your horse. Typically, horse owners opt for Timothy, Bermudagrass, or Alfalfa hay, often using a combination of these. But how do they differ?

The primary distinctions between Timothy, Bermudagrass, and Alfalfa hay are their protein levels, fiber content, and the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio. Each type offers unique benefits, from Alfalfa’s higher calorie and protein content to Timothy hay’s ease of digestion. However, individual horses have varying needs, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t apply.

By examining the nuances and understanding the differences between these hays, you can ensure optimal nutrition for your horse. In this article, we’ll explore each type of horse hay in-depth, shedding light on its benefits and potential drawbacks.

Picture of bermudagrass hay next to alfalfa hay
Alfalfa next to bermudagrass hay

Types of Hay

Horses thrive on a diet primarily composed of hay, but choosing the right variety is pivotal. Broadly, hays fall into two categories: legumes and grasses. Legume hays like Alfalfa boast high protein and calcium levels, ideal as a dietary supplement.

In contrast, grass hays like Timothy and Bermudagrass offer ample fiber, serving as a robust roughage source. Regardless of the type, always prioritize fresh, high-quality hay. Before feeding, inspect hay for potential mold or contaminants to ensure your horse’s safety.

While this article delves deeper into the nutritional contrasts of alfalfa, timothy, and bermudagrass, remember that these values can fluctuate based on growing and storage conditions. For precise dietary decisions and understanding hay’s nutritional nuances, consulting with a veterinarian or qualified animal nutritionist is paramount.

Understanding Timothy, Bermuda Grass, and Alfalfa

When it comes to equine nutrition, choosing the right hay is paramount. Dive into the characteristics of Timothy, Bermuda Grass, and Alfalfa to determine the best fit for your horse’s needs.

Timothy Hay

What is it?
Timothy hay is a cool-season grass that’s often hailed for its high fiber content and relatively low protein levels.

Why is it good for horses?
Its balance of fiber and protein makes it a perfect feed for adult horses, especially those with moderate to low activity levels. Moreover, its lower calcium content compared to Alfalfa can be beneficial for horses that don’t require high calcium in their diet.

Best Used For:

  • Mature, idle horses.
  • Horses with specific dietary needs that require a lower calcium and protein diet.

Bermuda Grass Hay

What is it?
Bermuda Grass is a warm-season grass known for its fine texture and high digestibility.

Why is it good for horses?
Being low in protein but rich in fiber, it serves as a great feed for horses requiring a weight-maintaining diet. Its low sugar content is also beneficial for horses that are sugar-sensitive.

Best Used For:

Alfalfa Hay

What is it?
Alfalfa is a legume hay, notably higher in protein, calories, and calcium than grass hays.

Why is it good for horses?
With its richer nutritional content, Alfalfa is excellent for young, growing horses or performance horses that need extra energy. The higher calcium levels can be beneficial for lactating mares and horses in heavy training.

Best Used For:

  • Young horses that are still growing.
  • High-performance horses needing additional energy.
  • Lactating mares.

While all three types of hay have their benefits, the key is to match the hay type to your horse’s specific needs. Regular vet check-ups and understanding your horse’s health and activity levels can guide you in making the best feed choices. Always ensure the hay is free from mold, dust, and contaminants, regardless of type, to maintain your horse’s optimal health.

Type of HayColorTexture and StructureTypical Seed Head Appearance
Timothy HayGreen with possible light brown hueMedium-coarse, long, thin, and cylindrical stemsWheat spike, “cattail” appearance
Bermuda Grass HayBright green with potential gold undertonesFine, thin blades, softer feelBranching, finger-like appearance
Alfalfa HayDeep greenLeafy with thicker stemsPurple and clover-like
Physical Characteristics of Hay

Matching Hay to Horse’s Age, Activity, and Health Needs

Ensuring your horse thrives means aligning their diet with their unique needs. Let’s explore matching the right hay type with your horse’s age, activity level, and specific health considerations.

Age Considerations

Young and Growing Horses:
Young horses, especially those under three years of age, have different nutritional needs as they are still growing. Alfalfa, with its higher protein, calorie, and calcium content, can support their skeletal and muscular growth.

Mature Horses:
For most mature horses, especially those not engaged in heavy work, Timothy or Bermuda Grass hay can offer the necessary nutrients without the risk of overfeeding protein or calories.

Senior Horses:
Elderly horses often have dental issues or a decreased ability to digest nutrients. In these cases, softer hays like Bermuda Grass, or a mix containing Alfalfa, can be beneficial due to its digestibility and nutrient content.

Picture of a horse eating hay from a net.

Activity Levels

Idle or Light Work:
For horses that aren’t doing much physically, overfeeding can lead to weight gain. Timothy or Bermuda Grass hay is suitable, as it provides essential nutrients without excess calories.

Moderate to Heavy Work:
Performance horses or those undergoing rigorous training require more energy. Alfalfa can be an excellent choice due to its higher calorie content. Mixing it with Timothy can balance the protein and calcium levels.

Special Health Needs

Weight Management:
For overweight horses, Bermuda Grass, with its high fiber and low sugar content, can help in weight management.

Metabolic Disorders:
Horses with conditions like Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s disease need a diet low in sugars and starches. Bermuda Grass hay is often the go-to choice due to its low sugar content.

Lactating Mares:
Lactating mares have higher nutritional needs, especially calcium. Alfalfa can provide these necessary nutrients to support both the mare and her foal.

To sum up, knowing your horse’s age, activity level, and any specific health requirements is crucial. By understanding these factors and the nutritional content of each hay type, you can tailor your feed choices to offer the best care for your equine friend. Always consult with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist to make informed decisions about your horse’s diet.

Type of HayProteinFiberCalciumEnergy (Calories)
Timothy Hay7-11%*32-34%*0.4-0.6%*820-840 cal/lb*
Bermuda Grass Hay8-12%*28-30%*0.3-0.5%*800-820 cal/lb*
Alfalfa Hay15-20%*30-32%*1.2-1.5%*900-930 cal/lb*
Note: The values I’ve provided (*) are general estimates based on a range of sources and can vary based on maturity, growing conditions, and other factors.

Hay Management: Sourcing, Storing, and Introducing New Feed

Effective hay management is crucial for ensuring optimal nutrition and longevity of your stock. Dive into the essentials of sourcing quality hay, proper storage methods, and the best practices for introducing new feed to your horses.

Sourcing Quality Hay

Local Farmers and Suppliers:
Start with local farmers or agricultural suppliers with a reputation for providing fresh, quality hay. Ask other horse owners or stables in your area for recommendations.

Inspect Before Buying:
Before purchasing, always inspect the hay. Look for green, leafy, and fresh-smelling hay free from mold, dust, or any contaminants. Avoid bales that are overly dry or have a musty odor.

Ask About Hay Testing:
Some suppliers might have nutrient tests available for their hay batches. This provides insights into protein, fiber, and mineral contents, helping you make an informed decision.

Picture of square bales of hay.

Storing Your Hay

Keep it Dry:
Store hay in a dry, well-ventilated area to prevent mold growth. Elevated pallets or hay lofts can keep bales off the ground and reduce moisture exposure.

Avoid Direct Sunlight:
While a well-ventilated space is essential, avoid prolonged direct sunlight, which can degrade the nutritional quality of the hay.

Regularly Rotate Stock:
Use the oldest hay first and rotate your stock, ensuring no bale is left sitting for too long and losing its freshness.

Introducing New Feed

Gradual Transition:
When introducing a new type of hay to your horse, do it gradually over 7-10 days. Start by mixing a small amount of the new hay with the old, increasing the proportion daily.

Monitor for Digestive Upset:
Always observe your horse for signs of digestive upset, like colic or loose stools, when transitioning feeds. If issues arise, consult with your veterinarian.

Allow Free Access to Water:
A change in diet can sometimes affect a horse’s water intake. Ensure they always have free access to clean water, especially when adjusting to new hay.

Managing hay goes beyond just selecting the right type; it’s about ensuring its quality from the source to the stable. By taking care of these aspects, you ensure that your horse receives the best nutrition possible. Always stay proactive in your hay management practices and remain observant of your horse’s health and behavior.

Below is a YouTube video that compares grass and alfalfa hay.

Cost & Market Demand

When it comes to feeding horses, it’s not only the nutritional profile and benefits of hay that play a role but also its availability, cost, and demand in the market. Timothy, Bermuda, and Alfalfa hay each have distinct market trends, costs, and demand factors that are influenced by various external elements.

Current Market Trends for Each Hay

  • Timothy Hay: This hay is particularly popular in North America, especially in regions with cooler climates. Due to its high fiber content, Timothy hay has seen increased demand among horse owners who are more health-conscious about their horses’ digestion.
  • Bermuda Grass Hay: Often grown in the southern U.S. states, Bermuda grass hay’s market is influenced by its drought resistance, making it a reliable option in regions with water scarcity.
  • Alfalfa Hay: With its high protein and calcium content, Alfalfa remains a preferred choice for young and active horses. There has been consistent demand for Alfalfa, especially in regions with intensive dairy farming, as it is a popular choice for dairy cattle as well.

Average Costs and Factors Influencing Price

  • Timothy Hay: The price can vary depending on the cut, with the first cut usually being cheaper than subsequent ones. Factors such as regional weather conditions, fuel costs for transportation, and local demand can influence its price.
  • Bermuda Grass Hay: Its price can be influenced by drought conditions. Given its growth in warmer climates, factors like water scarcity and the cost of irrigation can have a significant impact.
  • Alfalfa Hay: Alfalfa tends to be pricier than the other two, given its nutrient density. The cost of Alfalfa can be influenced by factors such as pest management (due to the Alfalfa weevil) and its demand in the dairy industry.

Demand Factors

  • Timothy Hay: High in demand among horse owners, especially those with older horses or those prone to digestive issues. Additionally, small pet owners (like those with rabbits or guinea pigs) also drive demand.
  • Bermuda Grass Hay: Its demand primarily comes from regions where drought resistance is a key factor. It’s commonly used not only for horses but also for cattle in areas with warmer climates.
  • Alfalfa Hay: Its high demand comes from its dual use for both horses and dairy cattle. Given its nutritional profile, industries focusing on producing young, active, or lactating animals might have a higher demand for Alfalfa.

While all three types of hay have their benefits, it’s essential to be aware of their market dynamics. This knowledge allows horse owners to make informed decisions not just based on nutritional needs but also on cost-effectiveness and availability.

Picture of a bale of Timothy hay

Types of Grass Hay for Horses

Grass horse hay comes from many different types of grass. The best hay can vary depending on your horse and its needs. But be aware that you won’t find the same kinds of quality of grass in all geographic locations.

Timothy, Bermuda, and Orchard are the three most popular grass hays, and you can typically find them in most feed stores. Brome Grass Hay, Oat Hay, Ryegrass Hay, and Fescue Hay are other less popular grass hays.

Timothy Hay for Horses

Timothy hay, prevalent in North America, is a staple forage for horses, celebrated for its high fiber and palatability. It’s typically segmented into three cuts: the fiber-rich first cut, the balanced second cut favored by many horse owners, and the softer third cut ideal for horses with dental issues or those picky about their feed.

This hay is rich in fiber, essential for equine digestion, and other vital nutrients like protein and vitamins. Its high fiber content not only aids digestion but also assists in weight and dental management for horses.

However, its nutritional value can slightly differ based on its growth conditions and cut. While Timothy hay is a standard choice, alternatives like alfalfa and Bermuda provide varied nutritional benefits.

It’s essential to store Timothy hay in dry, cool areas to avoid mold. Always consult with equine experts to ensure your horse’s specific dietary needs are met. In essence, Timothy hay stands out for its myriad benefits, making it a favorite among horse owners.

Alfalfa HayTimothy Hay
Nutritional ValueHigher protein and calcium contentLower protein and calcium content
DigestibilityTypically more digestibleTypically less digestible
PriceGenerally more expensiveGenerally less expensive
Suitability for Different Life StagesGood for growing, lactating, or pregnant horses; it may be too rich for sedentary or overweight animals.Good for adult maintenance or senior horses; may not provide enough nutrients for growing, lactating, or pregnant animals
Picture of a horse eating alfalfa hay.

Conclusion: Timothy, Bermuda, Alfalfa: Horse Hay Compared

Selecting the right hay is more than just a feeding choice; it’s a commitment to the well-being and vitality of your horse. As we’ve explored, Timothy, Bermuda, and Alfalfa each offer unique nutritional profiles suited to different needs.

Whether you’re seeking high protein content, ample fiber, or a balance of both, understanding these hays is pivotal. Always consider your horse’s age, activity level, and health conditions when making a choice. Remember, no single hay type is universally superior—it’s all about aligning with your horse’s specific requirements.

Should you ever feel uncertain, consulting a veterinarian or animal nutritionist can provide tailored guidance. Here’s to nourishing our equine companions with knowledge and care!


What is Timothy hay used for?

Timothy grass is good for many things. It can be used for hay for horses either by itself or mixed with Alfalfa. Timothy is also used to feed cows and other grazing animals, plus it’s suitable for feeding small pets like rabbits or domestic mice.

How much does it cost for Timothy hay?

Tractor Supply sells a 50lb bale of Timothy hay for roughly 22.00. For the same size bale of Alfalfa or Alfalfa/Timothy mix, the cost is 20.00. You pay a little extra for the convenience of buying from a national chain; I usually find lower prices from local feed stores.

Where is the best Timothy hay grown?

Timothy grows well in the Northeastern and Midwestern states, but the best Timothy hay is produced in high altitudes with harsh winters. Western Canada, Oregon, and Washington State are recognized for growing some of the best Timothy hay in the United States.

What is the best hay to feed a horse with ulcers?

Alfalfa and Timothy are good hay choices to feed horses with ulcers. However, it is important to consult with a veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to determine the most suitable type of hay for a horse with ulcers, as each horse’s nutritional needs can vary.