Let’s talk about hay.
There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing your Smooshie Faces 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. I will refer mostly to rabbits throughout this blog as we keep bunnies, however ill touch on guinea pigs as their diets are so similar.
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 abit 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.
I want to break down the haystack so to speak and help you understand the varieties regularly available in Australia for your rabbits & guinea pigs. Not all hay is grown equal. Variety, season & cutting times all play a huge part. The right conditions are vital for a successful crop & many factors come into play 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. Straw is the by product of cereal crops – the grain sucks up all the nutrients produced from the stems & leaves, when the grains and any remaining fodder are salvaged, the depleted stalks left behind become the straw which is best used only for bedding.
Chaff – this is another term you may see often when searching for hay, chaff is hay of any variety that has been cut into small pieces.
If you see the term shandy chaff – this means it’s a blend (typically shandy chaff is oaten hay & lucerne).
Timothy – you will find that timothy hay (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. Some big brands do import it into Australia, often found in 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 fiber 33% protein 11% & calcium 0.6%. It can be fed freely to your rabbit & guinea pig 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 fiber 32%, calcium 0.4% & protein 9%. Teff is low in sugars which makes it a great add to your rabbit & guinea pigs 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 great for young rabbits & guinea pigs – those under 6months, pregnant or who may be recovering from some illnesses (speak with your vet). It’s high in fiber 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.
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 bun/ pig 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 its’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 but it can be fed in small amounts as apart of their diet.
Oaten Hay – In Australia the most common hay is oaten, I’m going to elaborate on this variety a little more than the others as it’s my preferred hay for our rabbits. 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. Certain areas will choose to grow certain varieties of oaten based on their climate and production requirement. Oaten hay is considered as the most well-rounded, most available hay suiting all the stages of your rabbit & guinea pigs’ 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.
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 a popular crop as it’s yields are robust and useful in combating growth of weeds & unwanted rye grass. It’s often used on rotation to rye grass as if can inhibit it’s growth which is a natural control method allowing farmers to avoid chemical overuse.
Oaten hay is grown to be used as animal fodder, human consumption (rolled oats / oat flour/ oat milk) & finally 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 & guinea pig 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 cut in bloom / seeding will be far too rich for your small pets, that stage is better suited to livestock & further on grain productions.
So why is hay so important? 80% of your rabbit / guinea pig diet should consist of quality hay.
Hay is responsible for their energy, gut health & teeth maintenance.
Energy: 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.
Gut: When a Rabbit or guinea pig clean themselves it’s inevitable, they’ll ingest some of their own or fur friends’ fur. This can be problematic as neither species have ability to cough up a furball like a cat for example – they must pass it through their whole system. To do this roughage is required. Hay provides some indigestible fibres which take the whole journey through the digestive tract dragging the fur & other unwanted particles along for the ride.
*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
Teeth: Rabbit & Guinea pig teeth are ‘open rooted’ which means they continue to grow for their entire life. Rabbits 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 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.
Not feeding enough hay can put your rabbit / guinea pig 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.
Dental disease in most cases is avoidable with a plentiful hay-based diet (with the exception of any other underlying issues). 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 rabbit / guinea pigs’ teeth in check, polishing away the surface keeping them smooth and worn.
(Branches, dried wood & bark are also great to keep teeth well worn)
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 haha 😊
The moisture level of hay is evaluated regularly to pinpoint the perfect timing for the initial cut & again when baled & during storage. Testing is conducted using a special handheld device called a moisture meter – ones with long rods are poked into the bales & stacks to reach the centers. A farmer aims for 12 – 14%, too much moisture means rot/mould. This may surprise you; 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 You can imagine how stressful it can be if rain looms around cutting time – it can throw out the seasons crop quickly.
Oat Health Tip**
Sometimes oaten hay is harvest for small animals on the cusp of it going to grain. If you are finding an excess of oat seeds you may want to consider thinning them out before giving the hay to your rabbit or guinea pig. Oat seeds are covered in tiny burs, the same as you feel when you run your finger along a blade of grass/hay, they have a fine needle pointed end which can easily get stuck in your pet’s skin, mouth, nose, or ears. A cheeky grass seed up the nose can cause your pet to sneeze continuously, or one in the ear may have them rubbing at it – keep a lookout. Because of the burs they go in but are hard to get out, injury from oat seeds can cause infection leading to abscess. Incidents with oat seeds are common but don’t stress to much, let us face it – its super hard to avoid them all but being vigilant with daily checks over your pet for seeds will save you a few trips to the vet.
Another thing to be aware of is the green seed heads contain an under ripe watery milky substance which can cause tummy upset, & the golden ones are highest in fats – these become what we eat and large livestock species, when consumed in excess by buns & pigs they can cause weight gain and gut imbalances. In a perfect scenario great hay should leave your buns poops round, uniformed & brown/golden. Guinea pigs should have smooth, dark tablet shaped poop.
I would like to make special mention that some pets seem to have tummy trouble with certain hay varieties & not others. You may need to explore a few different types before settling on a variety or blend that suits your pet. The cause of intolerances is largely unknown because the controls for testing can vary greatly in relation to such a varied diet. 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 definitely something to be considered. When issues are ongoing, and all obvious medical explanations have been ruled out it tends to lean towards exploration of diet. Oaten hay in general seems to be trigger for some buns but it’s unclear what the culprit may be – again crop contamination & study controls makes things hard to prove. Soil nutrient levels, drought, rain, cutting time etc can all affect the hay’s profile.
Lets dive into that a little further......
The term ‘gluten’ is used to collectively describe the grain proteins ‘prolamins’ from wheat, rye and barley that are triggering to humans, dogs, horses with coeliac disease (gluten intolerance). Prolamins found in wheat are called gliadin, hordein in barley and secalin in rye. Gluten prolamins are the substance that gives dough its stretch, think pasta & bread YUM!. Timothy hay, teff, lucerne & oaten hay are considered gluten free – however like all fodder crops they can become contaminated easily. Meadow hay will have obvious traces of gluten being a blend.
Interestingly there are some investigations around pure oats (the part seed you find in oaten hay) containing a distant relative prolamin called ‘avenin’ – could this be the bad guy? The evidence is slim supporting the notion whether the avenin strain affects those with celiac disease or not, potentially only a very select few, so the jury is still out. But who’s to say some people may be affected or our buns for that matter – everyone’s different.
Always keep in mind that the gut flora of each animal is different – their individual history can lay out a completely different outcome. There are so many avenues to explore around this topic & studies will continue. If you can shed light on the topic please reach out, I promise to update this blog with any news that i hear. I find it all very fascinating 😊 haha I hope answers are one day found for those who do have issues in their pets.
****If you’re pets 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, treats or switching your hay. Loose stools can also be a flag for many other medical problems & is worth a visit to the vet for further investigation.
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 mold. 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.
Wild oat weed – you may find some in your oaten hay, they have the extra fluffy seeds and a visible brown spike coming out of the pod. Rye, Barley & Wheat may also be found on occasion in your oaten hay. These are the 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, just remove them if you can, the rest is fine to munch.
How to feed hay…
Rabbits & piggy’s 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. To avoid too much wastage, you can hang a ‘’hay feeder rack, or hay bag’ above their litter. You can repurpose a lot of regular household items to use as a rack, we’ve used chrome baskets from Kmart, I’ve seen others use bag holders from Ikea, you just need to think outside the square. Or you can buy purpose made racks. – We also place standalone wire baskets with weights in the bottom in our buns pen for them to forage on, they have fun pulling the strands from the stack.
Handmade wood hayfeeder/litter tray set ups are becoming very popular, the design concepts have improved hops & bounds over the years. You can even find how to’s and templates online with a quick google if your keen to have a shot at making one yourself.
I really hope this blog brings some clarity to any question marks around hay for your Smooshie Faces. If I can elaborate on anything further please reach out to me, very happy to chat about all things hay.
Happy munching every bunny & piggy!
❤❤❤ Special thankyou to my Dad – retired wheat / sheep farmer for his valuable insight & knowledge.
Holly & The Smooshies xox
- References Used: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/ Producing Quality Oaten Hay
- https://grdc.com.au/ Identifying West Australia Summer Grass Weeds
- https://www.farmweekly.com.au/ Blotch
- Stock photos from Canva, wikipeadia.com, britanica.com, Ikea.com.au, kmart.com.au, West Australian Agriculture & Food Department