A Low-Cost Alternative Forage Option: Is Bluestem Hay Good for Horses?

By Zunnun Ahmed •  Updated: 08/19/22 •  6 min read

We all know…..

A good source of forage should comprise at least 50% of a horse’s daily intake – 5.4-6.8 kg (12-15 lb) of dry hay for the average adult horse.

But what happens in times of drought or other harsh weather?

Luckily we got some other dust-free hay options. For example- bluestem hay, One of the high-quality nutrition-dense forages. But IS bluestem hay good for horses

Big bluestem is one of the best warm-season hay-producing grasses horses graze well. Nutritionally, the big blue hay has lower levels of nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC), making it ideal for horses with metabolic disease and laminitis. It doesn’t produce fructan, a carbohydrate that triggers laminitis in vulnerable horses.

So Is rye grass hay good for horses? Stay with us and learn…

But first……What is bluestem hay?

If you grew up in the southwestern United States, you are familiar with this grass.

Yeah, that glossy bluish-purple coarser stem.

Bluestem, also known as beard grass, is mainly cultivated in temperate or tropical regions. The grass is coarse with folded leaf blades, hairy stems, and a reddish-brown or green appearance. It can grow between 3 to 10 feet tall, blooming from June to September.

Here is an interesting fact:

Bluestem hay is usually not harvested during its first year of growth because this time is utilized to establish a high-quality stand.


Bluestem is harvested in its second year of growth, before the development of seed heads. This practice increases regrowth potential and optimizes nutrient density.

Bluestem hay

Can horses eat bluestem hay?

Yes, big bluestem hay is an excellent choice for horses. You can plant a mixture of other warm-season grasses with bluestem for good summer grazing.

Little bluestem hay is not grazed very well by horses, so it’s best to plant it with other grasses in mixtures and harvest before seedheads grow.

Some warm-season grasses you can mix with big bluestem and sand bluestem include Indian grass, sand lovegrass, and side oats grama.

Good to know…….
Horses are non-ruminant herbivores adapted to eating forage-based diets or plant fiber. You may find some horses with no interest in fresh pasture and are fed preserved feed, typically as hay ~National centre for biotechnology information (Source).

Bluestem hay nutritional value: How much protein does bluestem grass have?

The nutritional value depends on palatability. When bluestem is cultivated, its palatability is highest and falls as the grass dies.

During the winter months, palatability is fair. 

So, forage quality is higher during the spring and summer than in the growing season.

In summer, bluestem hay’s protein content is almost 14% and 15%, and it decreases to 5% and 7% during the fall.

Studies have also found that the voluntary consumption of big bluestem hay was much lower than cool-season hay, which means it’s suitable for horses with metabolic issues such as obesity.

Is bluestem hay toxic to horses?

No, bluestem hay is not toxic to horses. (Also read more about does weed is toxic to horses?)

This is because it is a warm-season grass with lower levels of NSC than cool-season forages that usually have nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) concentrations above 12%, according to a study.

High NSC concentrations cannot be readily digested, stimulating the release of endotoxins into the bloodstream. This high concentration of NSC harms horses prone to obesity and laminitis.

10–12% NSC concentration is ideal for horses prone to obesity and laminitis, making bluestem hay safe for horses susceptible to laminitis.

Related: Can Horses Eat Sunflower Seeds? Explore Nutritional Benefits

What is the difference between big bluestem and a little bluestem? is big bluestem hay good for horses?

Little bluestem is very common all across the US. 

It is usually much smaller than big bluestem and less palatable, but it tends to be drought-resistant. Hence, you can easily grow it even on nutrient-deficient, rough ground.

Little and big bluestems are very different in appearance. Little bluestem is a bluish-green and evolves into a rust-colored bunch with fluffy white seed heads during the fall.

On the other hand, the big bluestem has a coarse seed head with short and scaly rhizomes. Little bluestem is shorter than its cousin, just like the name suggests. 

Now come to the main point……why one is good for a horse?

Well, Both bluestems are enriched with nutrients for grazing animals.

How to feed bluestem hay to horses?

Here are four ways to feed bluestem hay to horses:

#1 Hay nets and slow feeders:

Nets make hay-soaking easier for horses suffering from insulin resistance, chronic laminitis, or equine metabolic syndrome.

It’s best to choose nets with smaller mesh sizes. Smaller mesh nets prevent horses from pulling out hay and generating airborne particles that can harm horses with heaves or inflammatory airway disease.

Slow feeders, on the other hand, keep horses entertained since they’re just like grazing.

#2 Outdoor feeders:

You cannot spread hay for horses on the ground in sandy areas. It increases the risk of sand colic because of the ingestion of sand. A feeder can minimize this risk if placed at an appropriate height above the ground.

Note: Make sure the outdoor feeder has no sharp edges, it’s easy to clean and sheltered from the rain to prevent mold or wastage.

Related: The 9 Surprising Home Remedies for Cracked Horse Hooves

#3 Feeding from the ground:

Feeding horses from the ground is recommended since it helps clear airways and release mucus. It can be highly beneficial for horses with breathing issues or heaves.

If you’re feeding a group of horses, place several piles of hay around them to ensure each horse can access the forage.

#4 Grazing muzzles:

Grazing muzzles limit pasture intake and are used as preventative measures during the spring season when laminitis and insulin resistance cases are common.

Muzzles prevent choking, boredom, and gastric ulcers by slowing down the rate of ingestion.

Bluestem Hay

How many bales of bluestem hay does a horse eat a day? per month?

A horse’s daily diet is about 2-2.5% of its body weight. 

The amount horses consume daily will decrease if they have access to pasture or when they’re given grain or other kinds of feed. Their diet differs based on their metabolism and workload.

Let’s suppose that your horse weighs a thousand pounds. This means they will consume about 20 to 25 pounds of roughage. It’s not like bluestem hay is the only forage you are giving your pony, keep a balance and mix it with other hays.

Can a Horse Overeat Bluestem Hay?

Overeating is common in horses, especially if they’re bored. When your horse cannot access a pasture, it can wander around; chances are, it will get bored.

Staying inside a stable bores horses and they want to be entertained. If food is the only thing they have to be entertained with, they will eat more than required.

Related: Is Dallisgrass Good for Horses?

In a nutshell…….

Bluestem hay is a highly nutritious feed for horses. 

Not only does it have low nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) concentrations, but it is also ideal for horses susceptible to obesity or laminitis. This warm-season grass hay is better compared to the common cool-season hays available for horses.

Zunnun Ahmed

We are a group of horse enthusiasts. We want to provide information and tips to help others learn more about horses, how to care for them, and how to enjoy them.

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