Smart Little Checkers is doing just fine on her new “sweet hay” diet, according to Andrea Anderson, Lethbridge, Alberta.

The champion southern Alberta reining horse was a fussy eater until she was introduced last year to moist timothy hay in wrapped big square bales.

The moist hay is a product of A1 Feeds, Coaldale, a local company operated by Godfrey Poyser, a former English dairyman, and his son Michael. They grow timothy and alfalfa on 360 acres. They also do custom baling and wrapping and background beef cattle.

Over the past several years, the Poysers have embraced a European haymaking system. Last year, the weather was wet and rough in southern Alberta. When cut hay was too dry for haylage and too moist for baling as dry hay, they baled it anyway, as moist hay. The moisture range, generally, was 20-30%.

Their name for it, sweet hay, emerged on a warm day in late February. The family had opened a fresh bale for their own cattle. The color was as nice as it was the day it was wrapped. It smelled sweet and even attracted bees. The name stuck.

“This is a no-man's land,” says Godfrey Poyser. “It isn't hay; it isn't haylage. Fermentation is much lower than in haylage. We can show you bales, done at the correct moisture, that are the same color now as when they went into the baler a year ago.”

Counting their own and custom work, the family wrapped about 8,000 3 × 4 × 6' sweet hay bales this year. Most were timothy for horses, but significant amounts of alfalfa were also wrapped for the dairy and beef markets.

Timing is critical because horses can't cope with mold or fermentation.

“The bale is not treated,” Poyser says. “Oxygen starts to come in right away, so we wrap it as quickly as possible, with numerous layers of wrap.”

Bale size isn't an issue with the Poysers' horse clients. They have the equipment to handle big bales, and enough horses to consume a bale in two or three days.

Switching Smart Little Checkers to sweet hay was a bit of a risk in that she's no ordinary horse. In October 2004, she earned the highest aggregate score in the 28-year history of The Canadian Supreme, winning all three open reining classes for three-year-olds. The Canadian Supreme is Canada's national competition for reining, cutting and work horses.

Checkers is owned by Randy Olafson of Lethbridge. Along with 30-35 other horses, she spends most of her time at Jim Anderson Horse Training, run by Andrea and her husband.

“Our show horses used to be on 3-6 qts of oats per day plus flax plus dry hay,” says Andrea. “Otherwise, we could not keep weight on them. Now we have them all on just sweet hay. They're getting 20-40 lbs a day.”

She lists other positive changes:

First, vet bills are less. Coughing and colic disappeared after the horses were switched to the moist hay, which is free of dust and mold. Higher moisture content seems to help the digestive system.

Second, the hair has a natural shine. “We don't need to brush our horses,” she says. “It's like they've been out on grass for a month.”

Third, feeding is easier and the herd is more content. She has one product to feed, rather than several to mix and feed. It also keeps the horses busy all day, munching on the roughage.

Checkers hasn't always liked hay.

“She was so skinny, I could never keep any weight on her,” says Anderson. “We had a hard time putting muscle on her, even with training. Now she eats as much as I can feed her.”

NAFTAC Commodities Inc., Lethbridge, exported three container loads of sweet hay to Japan on a trial basis in late 2004. In July 2005, NAFTAC contracted for sweet hay from three forage exporting areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, with the Poysers doing the custom baling.

John Baah, a scientist at Agriculture Canada's Lethbridge Research Center, reviewed scientific literature on dry hay and haylage.

“If properly baled and stored, products such as moist hay offer some unique advantages over other forage products,” he says.

The system minimizes leaf loss and fermentation. Similarly, since the hay has less moisture than silage, losses of soluble carbohydrates and proteins are lower.

“It means the final product is closer to the original forage material than dry hay or haylage,” says Baah.

Moist hay should be a good fit for high-producing dairy cows, according to Baah.

“In a dairy, it would work because of its slightly higher nutrient density. You'd have more room to put in other feedstuffs,” he says.

At least one local dairy already discovered the benefits.

In June 2005, the Poysers baled some sweet hay for an 80-cow dairy operated by a local Hutterite colony. In the first week after they started feeding it, their herd's daily production jumped by more than 600 lbs, says Poyser.