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January 10, 2020

The Expert Guide To Selecting Fresh Hay Your Pets Will Love

Whether your rabbit or guinea pig is a picky eater or the type of pet that eats all types of hay with unbridled enthusiasm, it’s always a good idea to select the freshest hay possible.  Fresh, premium hay is most likely to be consumed regularly by small pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.  Given the essential importance of hay in the daily diet of small herbivores, it’s important to know what to look for and select the best hay available.  In this article, we’ll take a look at the following quick, helpful tips to help you choose hay your pet will enjoy meal after meal.

Expert Tips for Selecting Fresh, Premium Hay Include:    

  • Check the “Freshest By” Date
  • Give the Bag a Squeeze  
  • Take in that Farm Fresh Aroma
  • Go for the Green Stuff  
  • Talk to the Experts in the Aisles
  • Use the Dust Test

Check the “Freshest By” Date

Hay is a natural product that doesn’t expire in the traditional sense of the term.  When stored in the proper conditions, hay will retain its nutritional value for many months.  Hay is required to feature a “freshest by” date that you will typically find on the back side of your hay packaging.  For Oxbow hay, this statement can be found in the lower right corner of the back side of the packaging.

Freshest By Date on Oxbow Hay Bag

Over time, the fresh, natural aroma of hay that pets love will fade, so it’s a good idea to use your hay within its “freshest by” range.  When shopping the hay aisle, always check the best by dates to ensure your retailer is keeping fresh hay in stock.   

Give the Bag a Squeeze

The freshness “squeeze” test isn’t just for cantaloupes in the produce aisle!  When you are trying to determine which bag of hay to purchase for your beloved pet, feeling the texture of the hay can be a useful indicator of how long it’s been on your retailer’s shelf. 

Most varieties of fresh hay should be soft and pliable.  Many small pets prefer hay that is softer in texture, so your rabbit, guinea pig, or chinchilla is likely to appreciate you selecting a soft hay.    

Some considerations when evaluating hay texture:

  • Some hays are more compressed in the package than others.  If your preferred brand comes in a more compressed package, squeezing the bag may not be the best indicator.
  • Some varieties like Oat Hay will be crunchier by nature.  If your rabbit or guinea pig enjoys crunchier hay varieties like Oat, you don’t need to worry as much about the overall texture of the hay. 
  • There are many great benefits to providing a variety of hay textures. To maximize your pet’s daily nutritional enrichment, offer at least two varieties mixed together at all times.  New to offering a variety?  We recommend the Crunch & Munch as a great DIY mix for variety beginners!

Take in that Farm Fresh Aroma

There’s nothing quite like the smell of a field of hay at harvest time.  If you’re an experienced hay purveyor for your pets, you likely already know and love the rich, natural smell of fresh hay.  Even in a sealed package, it’s easy to smell and evaluate the aroma of hay on the store shelf.

Beautiful Green Oxbow Hay Field

So, what should fresh hay smell like exactly?  Fresh hay that has been grown and harvested under the right conditions should have a sweet, natural smell.  To evaluate the smell of hay, simply give the bag a squeeze and take in that farm fresh aroma.  Even premium hay loses its aroma over time; if your hay has a dull or non-existent aroma, there’s a good chance it’s been in inventory or sitting on the shelf for a while. 

Avoid Hay With a Musty or “Off” Smell

A musty smell can be an indicator of mold.  Exposure to mold can result in health problems for your pet, so hay with a musty smell should be avoided at all times.

Go for the Green Stuff  

One of the hallmarks of fresh, high quality hay is the kind of nice, green color you would expect to see in nature.  Green high is most likely to have been harvested under the ideal conditions for producing premium hay. 

There are many factors that can affect the color of hay, including:

  • Maturity
    • Hay that is harvested at an immature stage of growth is most likely to have the nice, green color you like to see in the package.  As a hay plant matures, it focuses its energy on reproduction and will send all of its nutrients into the seed head.  This results in yellowing throughout the rest of the plant.   
  • Humidity & Precipitation
    • Untimely moisture is the enemy of premium hay.  Water droplets on the hay plant can accentuate the sun’s effect and lead to bleaching or loss of color.  
  • Sunlight
    • Once hay is cut, it spends time curing naturally in the field with the help of the sun.  Hay that cures for a longer period of time (often due to factors including temperature, humidity, and precipitation) can begin to bleach (lose its color) due to prolonged exposure to the sun.  Once harvested into bales, even the greenest, most beautiful hay can lose some color on the outsides of the bale if exposed to direct sunlight in storage.   
  • Temperature
    • Generally speaking, dry and hot conditions are ideal for producing the most premium hay possible.  Cool and moist or humid conditions can predispose hay to losing some of its color.    

Talk to the Experts in the Aisles

If you find that the hay on your local retailer’s shelf consistently lacks a fresh, natural aroma, feel free to ask questions about their inventory and rotation practices.  If the hay on the shelf doesn’t smell fresh, there’s always a chance they have fresher inventory in the back that they can pull for you. 

In addition to answering your questions about hay freshness, knowledgeable store associates will be able to provide guidance and recommendations to help you select the varieties of hay your pet is most likely to enjoy!

When in Doubt, use the “Dust Test”

If you purchase your pet’s hay from a physical, brick and mortar location, try performing the “dust test.” Products that sit on the shelf for a long time will inevitably collect dust on the packaging.  If the hay you’re shopping for lacks the freshness characteristics you know your pet is most likely to enjoy, check on the dustiness of packaging.  


Hay that has been on the shelf a long time can have a bleached appearance. 

Storage Tips

So, you’ve successfully brought home the freshest, most beautiful bag of hay for your beloved bunny, piggie, or chin.  Congratulations!  Now what?  There are some simple, important steps you can take to ensure your hay keeps it fresh smell, beautiful green color, and soft texture for as long as possible.  To preserve the quality and maximize the storage life of your hay, we recommend the following tips:

  • Keep your hay in a cool, dry location
  • Store your hay out of direct sunlight
  • Keep hay in its original packaging or a container with adequate ventilation

Expert Variety Tip

As referenced earlier, we always recommend offering a variety of hays at all times.  Many pet parents find it easy and enjoyable to use a larger container for mixing and storing multiple varieties of hay.  A large plastic tote with a lid makes a great container for hay.  To provide adequate ventilation, simply drill a series of small holes along the sides of the container. 

Want to learn more about hay?  We encourage you to check out these great resources: