What types of hay are there and what are the differences?

Are you also lost when it comes to choosing the type of hay you should give to your horse, sheep, donkey, goats, etc.? There are so many different types that you lose sight of the big picture. When you are choosing hay, you should actually consider the purpose of the hay and also the sort of animal you want to feed it to.

One type of hay is very nutritious and the other is totally worthless. In addition to the nutritional value, digestibility and tastiness can also vary greatly. The following three factors play a major role in the production of hay: The type of grass used for haymaking, the fertilisation of the plot and the moment of mowing (and especially the weather conditions after mowing).

The type of grass

The main types of hay are:

  • Meadow hay: Like the name indicates, this hay is harvested from common grazing pastures (grassland) for animals. This happens in the spring before the meadow is grazed that year. These meadows are usually mown only once a year for hay. Later in the year, the meadow can be mowed again to make haylage. With meadow hay, there is usually only 1 cutting of hay, followed by 1 cutting for haylage, or the meadow will be grazed. Meadow hay carries the risk of animals unwittingly eating poisonous plants (such as ragwort) that are often found in grasslands. In the wild, animals recognise these poisonous plants and will not eat them. But as animals in captivity do not recognise the bitter taste of the poison in the dried form, they can ingest these poisonous plants through hay.
  • Rye grass hay:: This grass is mostly found on cultivated land and is often sown in autumn after the harvesting of cereals, potatoes or maize. It is a fast growing grass with a high yield when fertilised sufficiently. In earlier days, rye grass was sown mainly for harvesting as haylage but in recent years, there has been a shift towards hay. Thanks to the rapid growth of this grass, several cuts are possible during a year. We then speak of first, second, third and
  • Seed hay: This hay is actually a by-product of grass seed production. The grass seed must first be fully ripe before it can be threshed and the hay harvested. The nutritional value of this type of hay is very low, but due to its rough structure, this hay can be very valuable, mainly in non-performance animals.
  • Occasional hay: Usually this hay is mowed on abandoned sites or on roadsides. The harvest often takes place late in summer, which means that it can only be harvested once. The quality of this hay is very low. It can only be used as part of the maintenance feed for small ruminants such as sheep and goats. Occasional hay from roadsides can contain strange objects such as cans, glass, etc... Here, too, poisonous plants can pose a risk.
  • Variety hay: More and more hay of one or several varieties of grass is cultivated on request. In recent years, grass-clover combinations are increasingly used. Smooth meadow-grass, Timothy-grass and red clover are often added to these mixtures, each for their specific properties. This hay is mainly used for smaller pets such as guinea pigs, dwarf rabbits, etc.
The weather conditions during mowing and drying play a crucial role in the quality of the final product


It is definitely advisable to have a soil analysis carried out beforehand so that fertilisation can be adjusted accordingly. The more fertilisation you provide, the faster the grass will grow, the more it will yield and the more the value of the grass will adapt. Therefore, moderate fertilisation is recommended for hay production.

Mowing time

Grass mown early in the year (between late April and the middle of May is called the first cut) usually makes the best hay in terms of nutritional value. The older the grass, the more stem-like it becomes and the lower the nutritional value of the hay.

The weather conditions during mowing and drying play a crucial role in the quality of the final product. Mowing is preferably done in the afternoon after a few days of sunny weather. The grass then contains more sugars. In less favourable weather conditions, you must postpone the mowing because once the grass is mowed, there is no way back. For the production of high-quality hay, it is best to wait for stable and dry summer weather with a light breeze. This allows you to let the hay dry slowly and, when it has dried sufficiently, press it into bales. In really hot weather, it is best to press the hay in the early afternoon. Pressing it later will make the hay brittle and fall apart.

Does it rain after all? Then you have to choose. Either have the mowed grass pressed and reel it into haylage as soon as it is a bit dry or wait for good weather so you can still make hay later. Even when the weather is bad, it is advisable to turn over the hay at least once a day. Rain usually has a negative impact on the hay, but it also depends on several factors. Do not press any hay that is not dry enough! Wet hay will mould and it is highly dangerous to animals. Moreover, there will be a risk of spontaneous combustion later when it is stored.

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