David Brumfield says steamed hay is soft and moist, and a customer told him horses love it.

“The smell that comes out of the box while it’s steaming – wow, it smells great!” says Brumfield.

He runs Brumfield Hay & Grain, Lexington, KY, where he sells hay, straw and other supplies to racetracks and horse farms. In his retail store, he recently began offering hay steamers for horse owners whose expensive steeds are hindered by respiratory ailments.

The primary reason for steaming horse hay is to control dust and mold spores that can irritate the animals’ respiratory systems. Developed in Europe, steamers have been available in the U.S. for about two years. Two companies market them here: Jiffy Steamer Company’s Equine Division, Union City, TN, and Happy Horse Products USA, Palmyra, VA.

Brumfield, who sells Jiffy Steamer’s Haygain steamers, says the process is beneficial, regardless of hay quality.

“Even good hay has lots of mold spores,” he says. “Obviously, if the hay is not as good it has even more. This kills them all so you’ve got sterile hay to feed your animal.”

The main unit holds one two- or three-tie bale. The bale is placed in a thermally efficient plastic box on aluminum manifolds with spikes that penetrate the bale to ensure thorough steaming. It takes 50 minutes and about ¾ gallon of water, says Brumfield. A temperature gauge tells when it’s finished.

“When the temperature inside the box is 170°, it’s over 212 in the hay,” he says.

A Haygain full-bale steamer sells for $2,450, and a half-bale unit is available for about $1,000, reports Clint Joiner, director of Haygain North America. Besides the health benefits, he says steaming reconstitutes hay, making it more palatable, and the heat breaks down cell walls, improving digestibility.

The primary target market is owners of performance horses with respiratory conditions such as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO) or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also called heaves.

“Over one in six horses suffer from breathing problems that severely affect their performance or health,” says Joiner. “In addition, 80% of horses stabled part of the time have some degree of airway inflammation that will hinder their performance, even if there are no obvious signs.”

Hay steaming is helpful for horses with many different ailments, adds Stephanie Davis, a northern Virginia veterinarian and Haygain consultant. Horses with insulin resistance or equine cushing’s disease, for example, are usually fed lower-quality hay such as late-cut alfalfa or timothy, which may not be very palatable.

“They’re more likely to eat a poorer-quality hay if it’s been steamed,” she says.

Davis says hay comes out of the steamer damp, but not dripping wet like when it’s soaked, an often-used method of controlling dust and spores. She steams all the hay fed to her three horses and four that she boards.

“I think it’s perfect for all competition horses because they’re under a lot of stress, they’re traveling a lot, they come into different environments with all different types of stressors, and this is one way to control part of their environment.”

Brumfield, the reigning National Hay Association president, became a Haygain dealer largely as a service to his clientele, which consists mostly of people with expensive thoroughbreds and event horses.

“I’m always looking for ways to help them utilize their horses better when they’ve got a problem they can’t seem to get around,” he says.

He thinks steamed hay would be good for all horses, but says the procedure is fairly labor-intensive.

“It’s not something you have to sit there and overlook,” says Brumfield. “But if you’ve got 20 horses, you’re going to spend four or five hours a day steaming hay, and that seems a little prohibitive.”

Joiner points out that the next generation of his company’s steamers will come with timers that turn them on and off automatically. Davis saves time by using a wall timer to start her steamer at 5:30 a.m. so a bale is ready when she gets to the barn at 6:30.

For more on Haygain steamers, log on to www.haygain.us or email info@haygain.us. The Happy Horse Web site is at www.happyhorseproducts.us; the email address, sales@happyhorseproducts.us.