Focus On Horse Feed Costs

As gasoline prices continue to skyrocket, the cost of everything else goes up along with them. Gasoline is needed to plant and harvest crops and move commodities from manufacturers by land, water or air. This means higher feed prices. If you’ve never had to worry about feed costs before, listen up. The times are changing, and it may help to look for healthy bargains in the marketplace.


With drought in many areas of the country, and the increased cost of growing and cutting hay, it’s getting to be a pricey item. Whatever you do, don’t compromise on quality with hay. Make it your first priority in your feed budget. Cubes or pellets of hay often cost twice as much as baled hay, so we’d leave those choices for when there’s no alternative.

Dusty, dirty or moldy hay can cause serious lung irritation and/or allergy, diarrhea, liver damage and chronic weight loss or worse. Hay is normally the horse’s major source of nutrients, including protein, vitamins and minerals. Very old hay comes up lacking in nutrients. Mold growth and bacterial breakdown also smolders along in hays as long as there is sufficient moisture to support it.

The longer hay has been sitting around, the more likely it has also been home to assorted rodents. Those cone-shaped divots you sometimes see in hay bales are mouse nests. They can leave behind infectious organisms in the hay from their urine or droppings, and small animals that die and decompose inside hay pose a botulism risk.

Volume buying is the best way to save money on hay. If you buy from a hay broker, you’re paying more per bale than he did. If you buy from a feed store that bought from a hay broker, again, you’re paying double mark up. The smallest load you are likely to find at a hay auction is a ton, but your source doesn’t have to be an auction. You can ask around at larger barns to see if there is a farmer they buy from. Also check your local newspapers and the Internet. Enter your city/town, state and hay or check one of these sites:

At 40 to 50 pounds per bale (small square bales), that’s 40 to 50 bales per ton. Put together four or five people to split the cost, and it’s only 10 bales each. The bigger loads of three tons or more often sell for even less per ton than the small loads. Networking with clubs, groups, friends, other barns in the area can mean big savings for everyone. The more people you can get into a hay co-op, the better. Each can buy as much of the load as they can afford at the time.

Can’t Store Hay’

Think again. Hay can be stored in any area that protects it from the elements and has reasonable air circulation. Wooden pallets are often available free from construction firms or landscapers. These are used to keep the hay up off the ground. A ton of hay, or close to it, can be stored in a 12 x 12 foot area that has at least a 10-foot ceiling. Empty stalls are ideal. Garden sheds can be used.

Decrease Waste

While feeding hay from the ground is the most natural method, it can also be the most wasteful, as the horse scatters the hay and grinds it in the ground by walking over it. Inexpensive nylon hay nets with openings as small as you can find can be hung low outside the stall or fence line, where the horse can’t step in them. Deep-box feeding or solid canvas hay bags with small openings also cut down on waste but have the disadvantage of concentrating fine particles and dust in a closed, poorly ventilated area.

One thing anyone can do to decrease waste is to loosen/fluff up flakes of hay before giving them to the horse. Hay that is tightly packed is going to be pawed or picked up, shaken and tossed, sending it in all directions and leading to waste.

Grains And Feeds

You may be surprised that commercial bagged, ”brand name” feeds often cost twice as much as feed produced by local mills. Check with the local mills in your area, talk to their representative, show them what you are feeding now and see what they have to offer that might be comparable. As an added bonus, you’ll be getting the freshest feed possible. Most mills don’t make more than what they can sell in a week.

If you really don’t want to change from a commercial feed, you may be part of an equestrian group that might come up with a plan to save money by eliminating middlemen. Check with your feed company’s main office to see if they would sell to you direct, which cuts distributor mark-ups.

The two main ways in which horses waste feed is tossing it around and out of the feeder/tub, or leaving many partially consumed mouthfuls in their water buckets. For those that really like to dunk, try adding water right to their meals and giving hay a good dunking before you feed it. For horses that flip feed out with their nose while they are feeding, a bucket rim often helps. You might also try feeding from a deeper bucket. These are muzzles with widely spaced metal bars that do not interfere with eating but will hit the side of the tube if your horse starts to flip grain out.

Heavy duck feed bags, like the work horses used to wear, is also an option for these horses. You can usually find them for under $10.

Article by Eleanor Kellon, VMD, our Veterinary Editor. She has extensive experience with high-performance horses. With her husband, she breeds, races and trains Standardbred harness horses in Pennsylvania. She has written countless articles and several books, including ”The Older Horse” and ”Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals.”