I have some time this morning so let's talk about hay. I am not going to go into all the sordid details about every possible combination of hay available, but there are a few things that are important for rabbit owners to know.
#1. I have found that if someone is raising rabbits that hay will be an issue that everyone will have to deal with at some point. I know of breeders that don't include hay with their daily diet, but even then expecting does need nesting material and hay is ideal for this purpose. It is also a great choice for roughage and gives them something to do that is natural and that they seem to enjoy.
#2. There are lots of different kinds of hay available. Not all hays are equal in type or quality.
#3. Greener does not always equal better. We will talk more about this a bit later.
First for number one, I haven't talked about it much, but I have tried several long-term feeding "experiments" over this past year regarding hay. I have kept the pellets the same throughout, have avoided offering garden leftovers during this time, as well as treats. What I have found is this:
#1. Hay cubes are no substitute for hay. I tried several different kinds and only certain rabbits enjoyed them. Others turned up their nose no matter what. The bags also tend to contain a lot of dust and small particles of broken hay from the process. Youngsters may have trouble working the hay loose of the cube.
#2. Rabbits without hay get bored more quickly. All of mine, without exception across the breeds, get excited at hay time. They show outward behavior that they like hay time. This makes sense given they love hay and that grazing is a natural behavior for them.
#3. I had more problems with rabbits going off feed periodically this year when I didn't feed hay and it stopped altogether when I offered hay all the time again. I believe this is due to slowed gut movement if they don't drink enough that day, if they are ingesting hair during a molt, etc. I would add hay and the rabbits would fix themselves.
#4. I tried a number of other bedding materials during my hay projects this year from synthetic nesting material, to recycled litter materials mixed with the doe's fur, etc. Nothing compared to a lovely hay nest that the doe lined with her fur.
Of course hay is not a cure-all for all rabbit behaviors or ailments, but I think it sure helps for a happy and healthy rabbit.
Now let's talk about the kinds of hay available. The most common I've found are alfalfa, timothy, orchard, coastal/Bermuda, oat, and combinations therein.
Here is some information about these kinds.
Alfalfa- this is actually a legume. It is dark green, has more protein, energy, and calcium than grass hays typically and also has a high mineral content. There is a lot of controversy over feeding alfalfa to rabbits regularly, but because our pellets are made up primarily of alfalfa I don't see the point in giving them more than they already get. In my humble opinion, giving a healthy variety to rabbits (within reason) is one of the keys to a healthy diet just like it is with us.
Timothy- this is my favorite kind of hay to offer. It is very balanced in protein and energy, has a nice feel/thickness depending on the cut without ever really being coarse. It is usually lighter shades of green as you saw from my previous post.
Orchard- this hay is higher in fiber and lower in protein than some other kinds of hay, but tends to have a bit more protein than Timothy most of the time. This can start greenish but can also yellow a bit with curing.
Bermuda/Coastal- this hay is typically less expensive than Timothy or Orchard. It is still a lower protein grass hay and is a good fiber source. This is usually shades of green and tanish.
Oat- another higher fiber/lower protein hay. This one is a lot more coarse than some of the others, but the rabbits still seem to enjoy it. This hay is almost straw-yellow colored. It looks almost like straw, but works fine in my experience and is a good winter choice if nothing else is available.
Now lets talk about the cut of hay. This is pretty straight forward. The first cut of hay can be less desirable if it is left too long to mature as this can lend to tough/coarse "stemmy" hay. Most farmers cut before this time though and I have found it to work fine for the most part. I believe the Kaytee Timothy I posted earlier in the week was from a first-cut.
The second cut is typically softer and finer than the first cut. It can have more leaves then stems and feels/smells very nice in my hand. The bunnies don't seem to show a preference for first or second cut, but I like the second cuts for the nesting boxes because it is easier to manipulate into the proper shape for the doe than a coarser first cut. I have also found babies tend towards the softer second cut when they first try hay if given the option of both cuttings.
The third cut is not typically available in my area, but when it has been I wasn't thrilled with it. For one thing it was dustier. I can only assume this is because it didn't have the growth/length as the other cuttings and the equipment gathered some extra bits in with the harvest. It is also pretty soft and fine, tends to be leafy. There is a question of whether this cutting offers a lot nutritionally, but my best advice is just to purchase the second cutting when it is available and store your excess high and dry.
There is way more to talk about concerning hay including nutritional charts, types of bales, when and where to buy, etc., but I just want this to be a basic information post. I am including some links below with more information, but in the meantime these are my preferences for hay:
Clean, dry, smells fresh, low-dust, second-cut Timothy hay, but I rotate kinds of grass hay based on the best quality available in my area seasonally. I have fed all of the hays listed above along with a few others and mixes. I prefer square bales and it is a lot more economical to purchase horse quality hay at the local feed store than to purchase little bags of hay at the pet store, which coincidentally supports local farmers. Best of luck in your hay search and thanks for reading!