Horse owners are suffering from the feed store version of sticker shock as hay prices continue to climb – and availability dwindles.
According to the Centennial Livestock Auction website (http://cla.casauction.com/category/hay-auctions/), hay sale prices have increased more than 40 percent – and in some instances they’ve more than doubled – between July 30, 2011, and July 28, 2012. Feed dealers cite the nationwide drought as a primary cause of higher prices and hay shortages, while horse owners are trying to figure out ways to stretch their hay dollars.
Drought and shortages
When asked why hay prices are so high, Lonnie Bartlett of Bartlett Hay and Feed Co. simply said, “Lack of hay and the drought.”
An Aug. 14 report from the U.S. Drought Monitor (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/) stated that drought is affecting more than 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states. Sixty-three percent of hay crops nationwide have been stricken by heat and lack of precipitation, resulting in reduced yields and earlier harvests. Colorado hay yields are estimated at 20 to 40 percent lower than last year because of drought, according to a July 19 report from the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Little relief is in sight as the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts persistent drought conditions across much of the U.S. through at least November.
With 59 percent of the country’s pastures and rangelands in poor or very poor condition, according to http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/, and four states (Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas) reporting more than 90 percent of their pastures in that poor to very poor category, livestock owners are being forced to feed hay earlier in the year. Hay growers are holding back hay to feed their own animals, contributing to the lack of hay on the market.
Lisa Day of Farmer Jim’s Feed said that in good years there has usually been a supply of hay stored from the previous year’s cuttings. However, in 2011, much of the hay went to Texas and Oklahoma, after wildfires destroyed hayfields in those states. The struggling economy, extended drought conditions in Colorado and across the country; and the lack of hay two years in a row have combined to create what she calls a “perfect storm” of shortages and high prices.
While drought tops the list of reasons behind the current prices, the costs associated with each stage of hay production have also increased. Seed and fertilizer prices have gone up, and higher metal prices affect the cost of maintaining and repairing irrigation systems and other equipment. Higher fuel prices translate into higher costs to operate farm equipment, as well as to ship hay from farm to customer. Mike Corter from Falcon Feed said, “Hay is touched by many hands.”
Tips for stretching the hay budget
Falcon’s feed dealers are doing their best to keep customers supplied with hay, but Bartlett, Day and Corter all agree on this advice: Buy as much hay as possible now. No one can predict what hay supplies will be like during the winter months, but all agree that hay is likely going to be scarce and expensive.
They also provided these suggestions:
In all instances, make dietary changes slowly to prevent colic or choke; the latter occurs when horses eat dry grains or feeds too quickly and food becomes lodged in their esophagus.
- If possible, buy large bales. Pound for pound, they’re more cost effective than small bales.
- Substitute hay pellets or cubes for part or all of a horse’s daily hay ration. These alternatives might not be less expensive than hay, but quality is consistent and horses tend to waste less. Pellets and cubes might require soaking for older horses and for horses with dental or digestive issues.
- Complete feeds might be partially substituted for hay. However, since corn and other grains have also been heavily affected by drought, the price of complete feeds is rising.
- Beet pulp, which is high in nutritional value, can be used to supplement hay. Beet pulp pellets should be soaked in water for several hours prior to feeding.
- Feed supplements that can help horses digest food more efficiently and provide critical nutrients when quality hay isn’t available are sold through local feed dealers.
Equisearch.com recommends introducing new feeds over a period of at least one week. When switching feed, watch for signs of colic such as pawing, restlessness, rolling and nipping or kicking at the abdomen.
The Colorado State University Extension offers a fact sheet, “Stretching Your Horse’s Hay Supply During Drought,” that can be accessed online at http://ext.colostate.edu/pubs/livestk/01625.pdf. It provides detailed information about the kinds of alternative feeds available to replace or partially replace hay, as well as helpful feeding guidelines.
Robin Widmar's horse enjoying high-priced hay!