Steaming Hay ~ The Pros, Cons and Cost

soaking vs steaming hay
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Steaming hay has become more popular in recent years as more owners understand the benefits of steaming hay for all horses, not just those sensitive to dust. This has led to many people having a hay steamer on their dream list. But with the go to brand coming with a big price tag, not many people take the leap to buy their own steamer. In this article we will look at the benefits of steaming hay, the costs of running a steamer and decide if the cheaper alternatives are worth it.

My yard

We are a small yard. There is just the 6 of us liveries plus the yard owners 2 who live out all year round. Currently 4 of us are soaking hay and it is a nightmare. There are buckets all over the yard filled to the brim with hay and water and we have to be really careful when emptying them so that any loose hay doesn’t get stuck in the drains. Needless to say we are all hating it and have been dreaming of a hay steamer.

I have been on several yards where lots of people are soaking hay, but the idea of investing in a hay steamer has always been shot down. I think a big reason why is that they are expensive. When I hear hay steamer, I automatically think of Haygain. But for their smallest model, you are looking at spending £700 which is a big investment. Plus I have heard yard owners worry about the cost of running a steamer. So I wanted to really investigate hay steamers, how expensive they are to run and whether the benefits of steamed hay make it worthwhile.

The benefits of steamed hay

Steaming hay has benefits for your horse, but potentially your pocket too.

Horse Benefits

Respiratory Health

The reason most people consider steaming hay is to remove dust. I remember a lecture at University about how the horse’s respiratory system is a bit pants and is prone to issues. One of the stats they gave was something along the lines of “If a horse coughs, there is a 70% chance there is something wrong with their respiratory system. If a horse doesn’t cough, there is still a 30% chance there is something wrong with their respiratory system.” This is an idea what has really stayed with me. Especially when you consider just how much dust a horse is exposed to. Research also suggests that 88% of horses have a form of Inflammatory Airway Disease.

Top of the market hay steamers, such as Haygain, can remove 99% of breathable dust from the hay. As a result of this, they can reduce the risk of Inflammatory Airway Disease by 65%. Quite often owners wait until a horse starts coughing (me included) before they start soaking or steaming hay. While this will often improve the symptoms, it may not be enough to completely clear up the problem and the horse may need further treatment from a vet. But feeding steamed hay from the start will reduce the risk of it developing in the first place.

Digestive Health

A lot of what looks like dust in our hay can actually be bacteria, fungus or even mold. Even if your hay doesn’t seem dusty, it can still contain these things. After all, hay is not stored in the sterile environment like human food. It could have come into contact will all sorts from rat droppings to dog pee. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that ‘dirtier’ hay is more likely to cause digestive upset, such as colic. Steaming hay can remove most of the harmful things in the hay, making it cleaner for the horse to eat.

Hydration

You can take a horse to water…

I’m sure at times we have all worried about how much our horse is drinking, especially during the summer months or while away competing. If you have soaked hay before, you may have found that your horse drank less water. This is because they are getting more water from their hay. The same works for steaming. One study found that steaming hay can increase the water content by nearly 3 times.

Increased Forage Intake

We all know how important it is to make sure our horses have plenty of access to forage in reducing the risk of ulcers. But sometimes our horses go off their hay. It might be because they are away from home and they are worrying. Or it could be that they are just fussy and just pick at their haynet.

Four different palatability studies have found that steaming hay makes it more palatable to horses. Many of the horses chose the steamed hay over dry hay and even haylage. One of these studies took place at my university. So steaming your hay could be a great way to help your horse get the forage they need.

All of these health benefits mean you should have a happier, healthier horse who should perform better.

Owner Benefits

Your Health

I’m sure I’m not the only one who reacts to dusty hay every now and then. I have mild asthma and when the hay is really dusty it does make me cough. While you still have to handle the hay before you steam it, some steamers can fit a whole bale in. So you can steam a whole bale before having to make haynets etc. Reducing the amount of dust you have to come into contact with.

Smaller Water Bills

If you are considering steaming your hay, you are probably already soaking hay. I usually fill a huge bucket of water up to soak a 7kg haynet, this must be about 70 Litres of water. Whereas Haygain One will steam a 7kg haynet using just 3.5 litres of water. Just think how much water a yard would save if everyone swapped to steaming from soaking.

Steaming vs Soaking Hay

Soaking is a tried and tested way of reducing dust from hay and helping overweight horses drop some weight. With it being such a cheap method, it can be hard to justify investing in a hay steamer. Well that is until you start looking at some of the differences…

When it comes to those dust particles, there isn’t a huge amount in it. Soaked hay dampens about 90% of the particles, making them less likely to be inhaled. Steamed hay reduces the particles in the hay by 99%. The key difference being that steaming destroys the particles whereas soaking just makes them less likely to be inhaled.

Where steaming hay reduces the bacteria content, studies have found that soaking hay for just 10 minutes can increase bacteria by 150%. This also makes the hay less hygienic and less palatable.

One of the worst things about soaking hay is how heavy the hay is afterwards and how messy it is. The water after soaking is also really polluting with some sources stating that it is 9 times worse than raw sewage. But steamed hay is lighter and cleaner with no horrible liquid left behind. Plus as previous mentioned, it uses far less water.

The only time soaking looks to have the upper hand is when it comes to breaking down the sugars, essentially lowing calories. Soaking hay is proven to do this, although it also removes other nutrients too. Steaming hay keeps the nutrients and while it removes some water soluble sugars, Haygain recommend soaking for about 9 hours before steaming for horses on restricted diets.

The cost of running a hay steamer

Over the years I have met several yard owners where the unknown of the cost of running and maintaining a hay steamer was one of the main reasons for not investing in one. I reached out to Haygain to try and answer some of these questions.

How much electricity do they use?

A steam cycle runs for 60 mins and uses 1.5 kWh. This means that it’s 1.5 x your energy rate of 1 kWh. For the south east of England you are looking at an average of 22p to steam a haynet. Plus we have already talked about how much less water it uses.

How long do Haygains usually last before they need replacing or repairing?

“Your Haygain will last a long time if you correctly look after it and adhere to the cleaning and de scaling directions. They are very robust pieces of equipment and a full training manual and helpline are available if you get any problems. There is a 1 year warranty if anything should happen but this is very unusual. Many of our clients have some of the very first steamers we sold using them every day for over 10 years.”

How often does it need cleaning?

They recommend clearing out and rinsing about once a week and descaling every 4-6 weeks, depending on how hard the water is in your area.

What about cheaper hay steamers on the market?

I have known people to make their own steamers out of wheelie bins and wallpaper strippers. These have always seemed to be fairly successful. However, wheelie bins aren’t well insulated. So they won’t reach the same high temperatures, especially during the winter months. This means that the steam might not penetrate the entire haynet and you are at risk of creating the perfect environment for bacteria in the middle of the haynet, increasing the bacteria content of your hay.

After having a good search online for other hay steamers on the internet, the majority do seem to be the wheelie bin style. But I did manage to find a similar looking style to Haygain, but doesn’t look as insulated. They are about half the price of the smallest Haygain, but with research suggesting they could potentially make your hay less hygienic, it seems quite expensive to not really get much more benefit than soaking. But I guess if you have a horse with a really bad reaction to dust, these cheaper options might be good if you can’t afford the higher price tag options. However, bare in mind that most, if not all, the research into steamed hay has been done using Haygain. Other models might not have the same results.

Conclusion

Overall, I think if your horse has any dust related problems, investing in a hay steamer is a must, even if you need to make do with one of the cheaper options. If your horse is fine and happy with dry hay or just soaking the occasional dusty bale, I think if you can afford a Haygain, it is definitely worth having. But if you can’t I don’t think you need to invest in one of the cheaper options. Writing the article has sold me on Haygain and just wondering if I can justify buying one.

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