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Foxtails in hay

From: Connie

Hi Jessica:

I have been having trouble with hay purchased for my horses and it having Foxtail in it. A couple of my horses get very sore mouths with sores, and little pieces of the foxtail weed in them like thorns. Last year one horse in particular had sores over her entire mouth and lips and slobbered and bled from the mouth. It is hard to find hay around here that does not have any foxtail in it. No one else has seen or heard of this problem, even my friends that have horses and use the same hay have not had any problem. Have you heard of this before?

Thanks, Connie

Hi Connie! I think you're going to need to have a chat with your hay supplier. You may also need to talk to some other hay suppliers, because you shouldn't be getting horse hay with foxtails in it.

Foxtail is a grass with a barbed seedhead that can cause painful sores in the mouths of horses that eat it. The seedheads dig into the horses' cheeks and gums, and can create nasty, infected, ulcerated sores and, in time, abscesses.

As a horse-owner, you have two defenses against such mechanical injury to your horses' mouths.

First, make it your habit to check your horses' mouths regularly. If you find a sore and can't figure out what caused it, ask your vet to take a look. Foxtails aren't the only source of mouth sores, ulcers, and abscesses - horses can develop sores from their bits and, if their teeth aren't regularly and thoroughly floated, from the sharp edges of their own molars. Whatever the cause, mouth sores cause pain, hurt the horse's performance under saddle, and can lead to reluctance to eat and consequent weight loss.

Second, check your hay. Whenever you have a hay delivery, look at the hay, open some some sample bales, and if you see foxtails, SEND IT BACK. You're responsible for the health and well-being of HORSES. This means that you wouldn't accept a delivery of hay that had red maple or yew or sand burrs or cactus in it, you wouldn't accept moldy hay, you wouldn't accept a shavings delivery that had black walnut in it - and you wouldn't feel guilty for saying "Don't even take it off the truck, I can't use this." Don't feel guilty for refusing hay that's full of foxtails, either.

This isn't a matter of being hard to please, it's a question of your horses' health. Weed management is a big part of every hay-grower's yearly routine, and if you're finding foxtails (green, yellow, or giant) or other annual grassy weeds in your alfalfa, there is something wrong at the supplier's end, and your supplier needs to be made aware of the situation.

Horse hay is not the same as hay meant for other animals such as ruminants. Most suppliers who sell hay to horse farms are specialists who work very hard to produce the best possible horse hay. Good horse hay suppliers routinely go to considerable effort to ensure that their hay does not contain anything dangerous to horses. "Dangerous" would include toxic plants, or items that could chemically or mechanically (e.g. foxtail) harm horses.

As a general rule, foxtail is NOT permitted to appear in a well-managed, well-established alfalfa field. If there are foxtails or other grassy weeds growing throughout your supplier's hayfields, he has a big problem, and you need a new supplier. If there are foxtails or other such grassy weeds growing in one section of a large field, which is quite possible (especially if your friends and neighbours buy from the same supplier, and YOUR load of hay seems to be the only one containing foxtails) then the supplier needs to be told, so that he can track down the source of the problem and eradicate the weeds. There are plenty of products on the market that will kill foxtails, and suppliers of horse hay are generally very careful to purchase and use selective preplant herbicides that will let them produce the best and cleanest hay possible. Don't worry that you'll hurt your supplier's feelings. A bad supplier won't care, and - more to the point here, I hope - a good supplier will WANT to know.

Give your supplier the chance to make things right, but it might not be a bad idea to look into some alternate sources of hay. You're not necessarily limited to the local suppliers. If you have enough horse owners living near you, you and your neighbours might be able to get together order a truckload of good hay from another state, or even another country. I've seen some very nice hay in Canada. ;-)

Good luck. This has been a difficult year for hay in the USA, I know, but if it comes down to a choice between dangerous hay and little or no hay, your horses would be better off getting through the winter eating either bagged complete feed from a reputable firm, or a nutritionally complete feed with beet pulp added to provide any additional needed roughage. We all know that horses do best on good hay, and we all feel more secure going into winter with our barns full of good hay, but the key word is "good", not "hay". The nutritive value of hay that creates mouth ulcers and abscesses is irrelevant if the weeds baled with the hay are likely to cause mechanical injuries that will make the horses unwilling or unable to eat it.


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