Oh Hay There Blog (2)

Oh, HAY there!

There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing your rabbit or guinea pig chow down on fresh hay. When you find the perfect bag or bale it feels like a little win. Personally, I love the smell of fresh hay – I think it smells sweet like sunshine.

With 6 rabbits under our roof the ‘hay run’ is a weekly task with them consuming a half bale every week. Sourcing the best quality can be a bit of an art form and alludes many. It’s a must have dietary requirement and can leave you frustrated when stocks are low or poor quality. We have noticed hay is always a hot topic in the small pet community & rightly so, however concerningly often we see information that’s confusing & irrelevant to Australian small pet owners.

We want to break down the haystack so to speak and help you understand the varieties regularly available in Australia for your rabbits. Not all hay is grown equal. Variety, season & cutting times all play a huge part in production. The right conditions are vital for a successful crop & many factors must be considered along the way to deliver you that perfect bag/bale of hay.

Let’s take a look at the most talked about hay varieties

The term ‘Hay’ is used to describe any grass, cereal, legume, or herbaceous plant that is cut at peak nutritional value for animal fodder. The colour of hay can vary from green to golden.

Straw – is not to be confused with hay because sometimes they can look similar but the similarity stops at colour. Straw is the by product of cereal crops (wheat, barley, oat etc) – the grain sucks up all the nutrients produced from the stems & leaves. Matured grain is harvested in peak condition, stripped from the stem then any remaining fodder is salvaged leaving behind only depleted stalks, it’s this part that we call “straw” which is best used only for bedding as it lacks any nutritional value and is rather undesirable for animals eat – think super bland tasting food.

Chaff – pronounced like (ch arrf). You may see the term chaff often when searching for hay, chaff can be hay of any variety that has been cut into small pieces. Typically it’s hay cut straight after grain removal before straw. Chaff is used mainly to bulk out feed for livestock – it’s can be used to stop large animals pigging out on pellets as a blender. Rabbits or piggies who have teeth issues may find chaff easier to eat, it’s a great option to have on hand during hay shortages too as it stores well. However always remember long stem hay is best – more on that later.

Shandy chaff – is a blend, typically oaten & lucerne hay.

Timothy – you will find that timothy hay / timothy grass is the least available in Australia as it’s predominately grown in the US. It is marketed heavily across America as the go to variety for small pets. Some big brands do import it into Australia, often found in very small bags at high prices, this is due to the difficult nature of import rules & regulations which must be adhered to. Very few grow it specifically for our small pets in Australia as it only grows well in areas with good rainfall or irrigation, cooler nights, and warmer days – Timothy hay is popular because of its great nutrient content which can closely be compared to oaten hay. It values are fibre 33% protein 11% & calcium 0.6%. It can be fed freely to your rabbit throughout the entirety of their lives.

Teff – is very similar too timothy hay, as in it’s nutritional value & also it’s availability in Australia which is limited. It originated from Ethiopia, Africa. Teff is grown mostly in the states of NSW & VIC, it requires a cooler climate with adequate rainfall to thrive, it has an optimal growing temp of 10 C to 27 C. It’s nutritional values are fibre 32%, calcium 0.4% & protein 9%. Teff is low in sugars which makes it a great add to your small pets rounded diet.

Lucerne also known as Alfalfa  – is a legume species. It has been grown in Australia for over 200 years, originating from Iran you can now find over 50 varieties here. It grows strong in the summer months & lays dormant throughout winter. It has a thick stalk, broad leaves, and purple flowers when in bloom. Lucerne is typically harvested from October to February. Lucerne should be avoided by guinea pigs as the calcium & protein is considered too high for their requirements. Lucerne is great for young rabbits  – those under 6months, pregnant or who may be recovering from some illnesses (speak with your vet). As it is high in fibre 30%, calcium 1.4% & protein 16 – 20% the protein & calcium levels are great for growing stages however considered excessive for adults. The protein on average is doubled, & calcium levels are approx. 3 times higher than Oaten hay/Timothy hay which can become problematic causing bladder sludge & stones. Steer clear of lucerne in large amounts for rabbits over 6months, a small amount blended with other hay would be ok, sparingly.

Meadow Hay –  the term meadow hay refers to a mixed blend of grass/hay varieties. Harvested from fields just as the name suggests which contain a myriad of wild & sown grasses (oaten, wild oat, rye, barley, orchard, teff, native, wheat, buffalo etc). This blended mix is a nice way to feed a broad spectrum of flavour, vits & minerals, can be great for fussy eaters. Because this mix is so varied i always suggest being familiar with as many types of grasses as you can be, so you can identify if your pet might be getting to much of one type.  Meadow hay will often look darker in colour and vary from golden to green, mostly thinner, longer strands as it’s typically left to grow over an extended period of time. A good quality blend should still look clean, dry, smell earthy & be free of weeds or foreign objects. This type of hay will often fill in the gaps during the seasons when other varieties are dormant or in areas where product is limited.

Rye Grass – Rye grass is an interesting one, in some areas it’s considered a weed as it can take over pastures quickly, out growing other species, some places grow it for lawns for commercial & residential use. There are dozens of varieties, annual, biennial & perennial. Rye grass is mostly grown to feed large livestock but it’s cutting time is monitored closely as it’s nutrient profile changes significantly throughout the season & some varieties can be toxic when flowering to cattle & sheep. Rest assured Rye grass doesn’t affect rabbits or guinea pigs in the same way, however the nutrient profile doesn’t suit them as an all rounder. it should only be fed in small amounts as apart of their rounded diet.

Oaten Hay –  I’m going to elaborate more on this variety as it’s the most commonly grown in Australia. Oaten hay is considered a cereal grass crop, there are lots of different varieties – each one has unique properties. It’s known for excellent grain production, drought tolerance & being disease resistance etc. Farmers will choose to grow certain varieties of oaten based on their climate and production requirement.

Bass, Bettong, Glider, Brusher, Graza, Kangaroo, Carrolup, Lampton, Eurabbie, Marloo, Riel, Swan, Vasse, Targa, Wallaroo, Wandering, Winjardie, Wintaroo are all names of oaten hay varieties.

Oaten hay is considered as the most well-rounded, most available hay suiting all the stages of your rabbits & piggies life & can be fed unlimited. It has a fibre content of around 31%, protein 10% & calcium 0.5%. Oaten crops are more resilient in our varying weather patterns, growing exceptionally well in Western Australia but found in every state. WA is responsible for over 48% of Australia’s oaten hay exports which is a huge majority.

Oaten hay is a popular crop as it’s yields are robust and useful in combating growth of weeds & unwanted rye grass in paddocks. It’s often used on rotation to as it can inhibit it’s rye grass growth – a natural control method allowing farmers to avoid chemical overuse.

A little about harvesting….

Did you know hay baling hay isn’t as simple as you think? You might have heard the phrase ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ It means to make the most of a favourable situation while it lasts in general terms. When a farmer says it, they mean it literally.

How does a farm know when it’s time to cut the hay? Apart from growth points, it comes down to moisture. Weather is monitored closely & the moisture level of hay is evaluated regularly to pinpoint the perfect timing for the initial cut, when baled & again during storage. Testing is conducted once baled using a special handheld device called a moisture meter – ones with long rods are poked into stacks to reach the centres. A farmer aims for 12 – 14%, too much moisture means rot/mould so they are very particular with storage. You can imagine how stressful it can be if rain looms around cutting time – it can throw out the seasons crop quickly.

A quirky science fact for you! This may surprise you; Random hay stack fires are a thing! A phenomenon called simultaneous combustion is known happen under the right conditions. Yep! A bale of hay can burst into flames & or smoulder. – it’s all about microbes, oils, gases etc 

Oaten hay is grown to be used as animal fodder, human consumption (rolled oats, oat flour, oat milk) & finally for straw / animal bedding. Crops are sown in May/June and cut from Oct/Nov dependent on the desired use & of course weather permitting. The colour can vary throughout the stages of growing & drying from pale green, dark green, yellow, golden & brown. It’s holds it nutrient value well after being cut.

Oaten hay for rabbit consumption is best cut just prior to the plant reaching full maturity, the grass stems should have leaves that are green. Limited flower / seed heads should be starting to appear. It’s cut and left to dry in rows before being baled & stored. Oaten hay that is cut with seed or grain is best for livestock, at this stage very rich in fats and can be a little overwhelming for rabbit tummies.

Sometimes oaten hay is sold by pet stores to small animals owners with loads of seed throughout the bags, it’s hard to avoid as not many place solely produce especially for small pets, there’s no quality control in place for ”too many seeds. If you are finding an excess of oat seeds you may want to consider thinning them out. There are two main reasons for doing this. Firstly oat seeds are covered in tiny burs that have a fine needle pointed end which can easily get stuck in your pets delicate skin, they’ve been known to go up noses, get stick in gums, lodge in ears, even eyes. A cheeky grass seed up the nose can cause your rabbit or guinea pig to sneeze continuously, or one in the ear may have them rubbing at it. Because of the burs the seeds often go in easy but are hard to get out & can cause infections. Incidents with oat seeds are common but don’t stress to much, let us face it – its super hard to avoid them all! Just being vigilant removing what you can & do a quick daily check over your bun for seeds – this will save you a few trips to the vet.

Secondly the other thing to be aware of is the green seed heads contain an under ripe watery milk like substance which can be the cause tummy upset, & the golden ones are highest in fats which can have similar effects because of how rich they are – there like super treats. When a small pet consumes oat seed/grain in excess it can be the direct cause of weight gain and or gut imbalances. A good indicator of overconsumption is that  poops will be dark, misshapen, small or somewhat liquified – time to back off the seeds/grain. In a perfect scenario great hay should leave your buns poops round, uniformed & brown/golden & smooth brown tablet shape for piggies.

Happy Poops

Bunny Poops

More on upset tummies…..

I would like to make special mention in reference to rabbits, that some seem to have tummy trouble with certain hay varieties & not others. This could be down to the harvest time, quality, nutritional value. And always keep in mind that the gut flora of each animal is different – their individual history can lay out a completely different outcome… You may need to explore a few different types before settling on a variety or blend that suits your rabbit.

Oaten hay in general seems to be trigger for some buns but it’s unclear what the culprit may be – crop contamination & study controls makes things hard to prove & pin point. Soil nutrient levels, drought, rain, cutting time etc can all affect the hay’s profile. Gluten intolerance in rabbits is currently an open discussion being explored by exotic vets in Australia as it’s known to affect humans, dogs & horses it’s something being considered. When issues are ongoing, and all obvious medical explanations have been ruled out it tends to lean towards exploration of diet.

Lets dive into the gluten theory a little further……

The term ‘gluten’ is used to collectively describe grain proteins known as ‘prolamins’ found in wheat, rye and barley – all triggering to those with coeliac disease (gluten intolerance). Prolamins found in wheat are called gliadin, hordein in barley and secalin in rye. Oaten hay, timothy hay, teff, lucerne & are all considered ”gluten free” but in regard to oaten in particular, apart from contamination being an issue there are some investigations around oats themselves. It has recently been discovered oats contain a distant relative prolamin called ‘avenin’ – could this be the bad guy affecting some buns?

The evidence is slim supporting the notion whether the avenin strain affects those with celiac disease or our buns. But who’s to say some may be affected & others not – There are so many avenues to explore around this topic & studies will continue.

****If you’re pet is having trouble with an upset tummy, please consult your vet right away. They will explore options with you around altering their diet to elevate the issue. This may mean less vegies, being super vigilant about those extra seeds in the hay, cutting out treats or switching your hay altogether. Loose stools can be a flag for many other medical problems & is worth a visit to the vet for further investigation.

80% of your rabbits & guinea pigs diet should consist of quality hay. So why is hay so important? 

Hay is responsible for your pets energy, gut health & teeth maintenance. Hay contains vital components such as fibre, carbs, protein, vitamins & minerals that keep your pets fire burning. They exact what they need for hopping, binking, zooming & snoozing then poop out the rest. It also makes them thirsty, encouraging water consumption which helps keep that gut moving & bladder working to avoid calcium build up, which can cause bladder stones OUCH!

When a rabbit or guinea pig grooms itself or a friends fur, it is inevitable, they’ll ingest some of of it. This can be problematic as they do not have ability to cough up a furball like a cat for example . They must pass any ingested fur through their whole system and out the other end. To do this roughage is required. Hay provides very important indigestible fibres which do make that entire whole journey through the digestive tract essentially dragging the fur & other unwanted particles along for the ride to be expelled.

*Brushing your pet on a regular basis help them avoid gut issues even more. A few times a week is good & more during heavy moults. 

Not feeding enough hay can also put your pet at risk of developing dental disease. This includes overgrowing of roots, abscess’s forming from maligned or misshapen teeth rubbing on gums or cheeks or extra-long incisors making it difficult to pick up food & chew all of which are painful & can stop your pet from eating altogether.

Rabbit teeth are ‘open rooted’ which means they continue to grow for their entire life. They have 28 teeth total: 6 incisors (4 upper and 2 lower), no canines, 10 premolars (6 upper and 4 lower), and 12 molars (6 upper and 6 lower). They can grow approx. 12cm per year.

Guinea pigs are also open rooted, they have 20 teeth total: 4 incisors (2 upper and 2 lower), no canines, 4 premolars (2 upper and 2 lower), and 12 molars (6 upper and 6 lower). Growing up to 8cm per year.

On the surface of hay/grasses millions of tiny, fine sandpaper-like burrs can be found, they all point in the same direction. You may not be able to see them easily without a magnifying glass however you can feel them. Run your finger along a stem/leaf – it will be smooth going up & your finger will catch on the way down. These are responsible for keeping your pets teeth in check, polishing away the surface keeping them smooth and worn. Dental disease in most cases is completely avoidable with a plentiful hay-based diet with the exception of any other underlying issues. Your exotic pet savy vet will always check your buns teeth to ensure they are on track.

How to select & store your hay

When selecting your hay look for stems & leaves with colour ranging from green to golden, no mould – this can appear as raised blotchy black spots or grey/white dust, few flower/seed heads & stems ranging from 30 to 80cm. The hay should smell fresh, slightly sweet. You must store your hay in cool, dry environment. We keep ours under the stairs in a canvas hamper on wheels, plastic storage containers, blanket boxes, & large storage bags are also a popular option. A 20kg square bale of compressed hay will cost anywhere from $14 to $35 this is the most economical way to purchase feed if you have the space to store it. Roughly a 2kg bags in a pet store will set you back around $12-$15.

We must mention some hay can have spots that’s not always mould. Some varieties are susceptible to disease called rust  – this will not hurt your pet. I stress again your hay should smell earthy & sweet – not dusty, chalky, or musty.

When searching for quality hay don’t forget to checkout your local ‘stock feeders’ they’ll have ongoing fresh supplies & tend to support local farms in your surrounding area. Don’t be afraid to blend hay varieties if you can get your paws on a few different types, mix & match any with similar nutritional profiles to keep your pet excited about their hay.

Barley, wheat or wild oats may also be found on occasion in your hay. Wild oats have extra fluffy seeds and a visible brown spike coming out of the pod, sometimes also call black oats. These are the common containments we talked about earlier. They can be consumed in small amounts however the seed heads much like oats are troublesome to becoming stuck in your pet, or being too rich for their diet just remove them the best you can.

How to feed hay…

Rabbits & piggies love to munch hay whilst pooping so lining your litter tray with it is good practice – it can help greatly with litter training, and a bonus is the sweet smell of hay is a great for masking undesirable scents. It’s not a necessity but to avoid too much wastage, you can hang a ‘’hay feeder rack, or hay bag’ above their litter. You can buy something purpose built, custom made or repurpose a regular household item. We’ve used lots of types over the years, chrome baskets from Kmart, wire trash bins, bag holders from Ikea, recently we settled on custom wood boxes with racks in built into them – you just need to think outside the square. Standalone wire baskets with weights in the bottom are another great option, they’ll have fun pulling the strands from the stack, just remember they’ll always poop where they eat.

Handmade wood hayfeeder/litter tray set ups are becoming very popular, go for untreated pine varieties, the design concepts have improved hops & bounds over the years. There’s an impressive patent pending metal design by Bunnease called ”Mrs Hay Clean” that a creative rabbit owner has developed out of Canada – we are saving our pennies to try one of these next. If your crafty & keen to have a shot at making a hay feeder yourself you can find heaps of ideas & how to’s with templates online with a quick google. From a long time rabbit owner i can tell you that you will try many, many different types before finding one to suit your bun & the ascetic of your home. Have fun with the journey 🙂 We will be sharing more about hay feeders in another blog soon – keep an eye out.

We really hope this blog brings some clarity to any question marks around hay for your rabbit. If your seeking more information please feel free to reach out to us, we are always very happy to chat about all things hay or alternatively join one of our chat rooms to discuss with other hay aficionados.

Happy munching everyone!

Big Love Holly xx

Comments (2)

    • Alicia

    • December 3, 2021 at 16:21 pm

    Love this article and have shared it to the Guinea Pigs Australia Facebook page.

    • Gege

    • December 4, 2021 at 04:16 am

    Very useful thank you! I have two piggies and I was buying timothy because I thought it was better, but if there isn’t too much difference and Oaten is locally produced I’m gonna switch!

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