In most of Canada, grass will start to grow in through the spring, and will continue growing into the late summer/early fall. Because of this, grass has the time to grow to a point where it can be cut into hay twice in the growing season, and perhaps even a third time, resulting in first cut, second cut or even third cut hay.
After grass reaches its goal height, which may vary significantly year-to-year based on sun, rain, etc., it will be cut and laid out in the field to dry. Grass might also undergo “tedding,” which is the practice of fluffing it up to increase air circulation so it can dry faster. Grass that is going to be baled as hay needs to dry to between 18-22% moisture, ideally.
Differences in the nutritional quality of different cuttings of hay depend on many factors, so it is difficult to say which is better for a horse than another. The bigger factors affecting nutritional quality and suitability for your horse are species type and stage of maturity. For example, grasses such as Timothy or orchardgrass have different nutritional profiles compared to legumes such as clover and alfalfa. As for maturity, younger plants are less stemmy and tend to have more nutrition than older plants with seed heads.
Your horse’s individual nutrient requirements will also affect the type of hay you select. A mature, stemmy, lower nutritionally dense hay is perfectly acceptable for most horses, while those that are growing or breeding, or perhaps in high levels of work, might do better with the less mature and higher legume content types of hay. Of course, the only way to truly know the nutritional quality of hay is to have it tested. And keep in mind that it may turn out you require different types of hay for different horses on your property.
In general, the first cutting of grass is based on growth from the spring, with lots of rain. If the weather cooperates, it can be cut before it is mature enough to bloom, which typically means richer nutritional content. However, a rainy spring might delay cutting because you need several days of dry weather to properly dry the hay before baling, resulting in more mature plants that have “gone to head” by producing their yearly seed head, that tend to be stemmier and lower in nutritional density. This might actually make the hay perfect for horses with lower nutritional requirements, like those prone to obesity, easy keepers or those in less work. Delays in cutting can also result in more time for weeds to creep into the grass field if it is not well managed. Wetter weather can also prevent adequate drying of the cut grass, resulting in hay that might be prone to mold.
The second cutting of grass typically happens six to eight weeks after the first cut. At this time of year, there are likely fewer weeds, and there has been time for any legumes present in the field to grow in. Also, if the first cut did have plants that went to head, the second cut won’t have seed heads and should be less stemmy.
So, rather than focusing on which cut of hay to purchase, the better approach is to look at the nutritional needs of your horses and compare that to the nutritional evaluation of several different types of hay. Then you can select the hay that is most appropriate.