One of the most vital parts of a rabbit’s diet is hay. Understanding the real differences between Alfalfa Hay, Timothy Hay, Orchard Hay, and various other blends make the difference in your bunny having a healthy, long life.
Even more important than choosing the right brand of pellets to feed your rabbit’s, is the vitality of knowing the true value of providing them with hay. The most significant difference in the various types of hay is the amount of nutrients found in each one. Without a balanced, consistent amount of hay, you’re risking GI-related and multiple health problems. Because we care about every bunny’s life, our experts at Rabbit Pedia have done the research and combined this list of the most common types of hay available, and what the actual differences are between them.
Essentially, there are two basic classifications of hay; one is Legume, the other is Grass. The Legumes include Alfalfa and Clover and the Grasses include Timothy, Orchard, Bermuda, Brome, Oat, Barley, and a few others. Additionally, the Oat and Barley varieties are also known as cereal-grain hays.
Let’s look at Legume Hay
ALFALFA HAY: Alfalfa is the hay with the most calcium and protein content, but is low in fiber. It is best-suited for small breeds of rabbits, as well as young kits, as it plays a large role in the development of bones & muscle mass. The risk, however is that it also is high in calories, which can cause excessive weight gain and may also result in Bladder-Sludge. Another issue with using this variety for rabbits is that the un-utilized proteins will be broken down into the urine and often produces a higher level of ammonia odors. If you feed this variety, be mindful to watch for weight gain, loose or wet droppings, un-eaten cecal pellets, and thick dark urine. The exact amount of contained nutrients will vary somewhat due to time of cutting, environmental issues, and other conditions, however the average percentage rates are: Crude Protein 15 – 22% … Crude Fiber 23 – 27% … Calcium .5 – 2.0%
CLOVER (red and white): While Clover hay is quite compatible with Alfalfa in protein and calcium content, the big problem is that is has a reputation for being too rich and having higher amounts of soluble sugars and carbohydrates, which are known accomplices of producing colic/gas related GI problems. Another problem is a reported higher amount of mold growth, which could ultimately be toxic to rabbits. For these reasons, it is suggested to not use this variety of hay. For the sake of this article’s purpose however, and remembering the variable conditions which effect nutrient content – time of cutting, environment, and so on – these are the average rates of nutrient content: Crude Protein 16 – 22% … Crude Fiber 18 – 23% … Calcium .75 – 2.75
Let’s look at Grass Hay
BARLEY HAY: When compared to Alfalfa, Barley hay is not as nutritional. The biggest difference is in the protein content, as Barley hay has on the average of only about half the amount of protein. Notably, the fiber content is reasonably comparable between the two. Barley does win on the amount of energy content, but yet again fails in comparison to Alfalfa hay when it comes to calcium content. Otherwise, the exact amount of protein and fiber will vary due to maturity at time of cutting, environmental, and other conditions, however the average percentages are: Crude Protein 6 – 9% … Crude Fiber 23 – 27% … Calcium .25 – 1%
BERMUDA GRASS HAY: Bermuda Grass has a moderate amount of nutrients, fairly compatible to that of Timothy and Barley hay. However, it typically does not grow as large as other varieties, therefore it tends to be cheaper, and can be harvested more often. But has a trade-off on a higher risk of GI blockage. On a plus side, If you feed ‘haylage’ to your rabbits, this could be a valuable commodity as it grows and cures quickly, and retains most nutritional value during storage. The exact amount of contained nutrients will vary somewhat, as is the case with all types of hay; however the average percentage rates are: Crude Protein 7 – 10% … Crude Fiber 25 – 28% … Calcium .5 – 1%
OAT HAY: The nutrient content of Oat Hay can vary greatly depending on the age of maturity when it is cut. Its best suggested to cut while the leaves and stems are still green and the grain is still soft to ensure a higher amount of digestible energy and protein but should be noted that it has low calcium content. Furthermore, if the cutting was done past the maturity level noted above, it then has the nutritional value of straw, and has the possibility of carrying a high nitrate content as well; as such, both would not be a good consideration for rabbit-use. Considering all of the above noted factors, you can expect an average content, produced from a *prime-cutting of Oat hay to be: Crude Protein 7 – 9% … Crude Fiber 27 – 31% … Calcium .25 – .75%
ORCHARD GRASS HAY: Orchard grass hay is the king when it comes to higher fiber with less protein. This offers rabbits a higher effect of gut mobility and better maintenance of the intestinal tract, therefore reducing the risks of GI Stasis and other such problems. It is for this reason that the most highly recommended brand of hay is an Orchard Grass / Timothy mix, as the two combined will offer a well-balanced nutritional content for rabbits. As with all types when taking into consideration the content of nutrients, when cut at select times, you can expect an average range of: Crude Protein 9 – 11% … Crude Fiber 28 – 32% … Calcium .1 – .5%
PRAIRIE HAY: Prairie grass hay is fairly unpredictable, as it is a mixture of wild grasses. In some US States, this type of hay is cultivated alongside roads, ditches, and medians, therefore it routinely contains various kinds of un-known matter, and when baled is often found to be course and low in nutrients. One leading concern is that with this, you are increasing the risk of unknown chemicals being included. For these reasons alone, we suggest using a different variety with a hardier, more reliable content. However, if this is what you have to work with, try to research the location of harvest to help reduce these risks. If you have connected with a good source, and considering the other usual factors involved – cutting time and such, the average nutrients to be expected are: Crude Protein 4 – 6% … Crude Fiber 28 – 31% … Calcium 0 – .5%
TIMOTHY HAY: Timothy hay is rumored to be one of the best options for rabbits. To get the best, it is suggested that buying / using the 2nd cutting of the year, as the weed content is lower than that of the 1st cut. There is also a higher level of copper and zinc found in this variety. However, the effectual loss of protein in Timothy hay could be significantly less than what is found in Alfalfa hay. Otherwise, this variety is high in fiber, generally easily to digest, and tends to have a higher vitamin content that the other grass-varieties of hay. Considering all factors, the average expectancy for this type of hay is: Crude Protein 6 – 9% … Crude Fiber 28 – 31% …. Calcium 0 – .5%