Drought `99: Will It Affect Your Hay Prices’

With the searing heat and drought that scorched the East Coast, Texas and Gulf Coast states this summer, many horseowners fear severe hay shortages and astronomical prices. While prices will surely climb somewhat, the situation isn’t as catastrophic as some believe. There is hay out there.

It may not be nearby, however. Local hay and pasture conditions have been devastated in many areas. Serious water shortages with mandatory water restrictions and reports of dry wells abounded in the Northeast. Making matters worse was the record high heat that literally baked vegetation to a crisp.

The impact on pasture and hay is noted in the pasture index, a USDA statistic released monthly. Excellent/perfect pastures are scored 100; worthless, arid land gets a 0. Official August figures rated pastures across the country as 57.8, up 3.8 from last year. However, drought-stricken states, like New Jersey and Connecticut, had pasture ratings of under 10. Only after Hurricane Dennis went ashore in North Carolina in early September did some fields and pastures start to return to more normal conditions, but it was too late for another cutting in some areas.

Generally, first-cutting hay was not affected; second cut was significantly decreased; third cuts were not obtained. Local hay shortages, especially in the Northeast, are unarguably severe. However, hay is out there, maybe as close by as a neighboring state. The keys are creative hay-gathering and an open mind toward alternatives.

It’s Out There
In late July, hay supplies nationwide for 1999 were projected to reach record highs. The inventory of hay in the United States on May 1, 1999, from our USDA sources was up 14 percent from the previous year.

Even drought-stricken states had significant stockpiles of hay from 1998 as of May 1. In addition, the USDA reported acres devoted to hay were up 3% nationwide overall, for the highest acreage since 1991. Increased hay yields were also expected. Plus, the supply of alternative feeds (reducing the hay demand from the dairy sector) and quality of grazing land (postponing or decreasing the need for supplemental hay) are better than in 1998.

As a result, record-high hay supplies are expected for all regions except the Northeast. Production — but not availability — here was expected to decline anyway because of decreased acreage planted. The United States can also draw from neighboring Canadian provinces’ abundant supplies of low-priced hay (half or less per ton than current Northeast prices), including top-quality grass hay for horses. Prices in areas other than the Northeast are also at record lows, making shipping economically feasible for out-of-state suppliers.

Dealing With Regional Shortages
If you are a horseowner in one of the drought states, you have two choices: You can sit back and suffer what is likely to be wide-scale price gouging on already inflated hay prices or you can do something about it. Those who are committed to obtaining reasonably priced, high-quality hay for their horses this fall and winter can do so. However, you will most likely have to organize into groups with sufficient buying power to make a difference.

• Start by contacting your state agricultural extension agent. Many drought-afflicted states have “hay hot lines” to match supplies with buyers. This may solve your immediate problems, but scarce local hay is likely to come at an exorbitant price. To secure a steady and reasonably priced supply of hay you must go further.

• Band together. By pooling your needs, you can purchase a tractor-trailer load delivery of hay from another area and split the cost among yourselves. Use whatever resources are at your disposal — including mailing lists for shows and other competitions, local membership in riding groups, contact information for breed organizations, maybe even client lists from local veterinarians and farriers — to locate other horse owners in your area. Don’t leave out area llama, alpaca, sheep and goat breeders; they need hay, too.

• Dairy farms are usually pretty well organized and networked and may be a good source of information on where to get reasonably priced hay, if they’ll share their secrets with you. You can be guaranteed they are not paying outrageous prices for hay. It would put them out of business!

• Form a hay-buying co-op, which makes it feasible to deal with large hay suppliers. Baled- and cubed-hay dealers we spoke to have a minimum order/load of about 22 tons for out-of-state shipping. Remember, a ton of hay is approximately 40 to 50 bales and will fit in a space the size of a roomy box stall.

Refuse to pay outlandish prices from local hay dealers. Ask them if they’ve investigated shipping in hay from outside the state. If they won’t, do it yourself. We’ve included in this article contact information for some large hay dealers who supply out-of-state or from Canada. (Shipping hay may sound pricey, but basic hay costs are so low in many areas you may end up paying less per ton than you normally do. When discussing hay prices, start by requesting the price-per-ton cost of the hay you want, then ask about the shipping costs.)

Contact local independent shipping firms for quotes on shipping, too. Someone in your hay-buying group may actually be a shipper or know someone who is. Dealing with high-tech suppliers who also ship overseas may be to your benefit when it comes to bottom-line shipping costs.

Purchasing Blind
You must be prepared to deal with the problem of buying hay sight unseen from distant sources. The most reliable way to guarantee quality hay is to deal with a supplier who uses the USDA hay-grading system (see end of story) and will guarantee quality. Failing this (the grading system is not mandatory), request that core hay samples be taken from representative bales in each lot that would go into your shipment. Have these mailed to a commercial hay-testing laboratory or the Department of Agriculture testing laboratory in the state or origin for analysis (probably at your expense, but a large dealer might agree to absorb some costs on a large load).

If you’ve got the time and the quantity to absorb the cost, consider sending hay-buying delegates from your group to directly inspect and select appropriate hay. With hay so abundant in other areas, odds are you can turn up a potential source that is actually not terribly far away.

Not worth the trouble’ Think again. If you can locate quality hay for $55 to $80 a ton, wouldn’t it pay you to have it tested/inspected and shipped’ Your local dealers are likely doing the same thing, then tacking on a nice profit for themselves. (If you are paying top dollar for straw, too, you might as well check out straw prices while you’re at it. Odds are you can cut costs there, too.)

If those efforts fail, you can take advantage of a variety of forage options for providing your horse with the roughage he needs and the nutrition he would normally get from good hay.

Cubed Hay
After baled hay, the next logical alternative is hay cubes. Don’t expect to save money, however. Cubes and baled hay must be fed on approximately a pound-per-pound basis. Cubes take up less space per pound but don’t have any more nutrients per pound. There is about 20% less waste with cubes than baled hay, but this simply means an $8 40-lb. bag of alfalfa cubes is the equivalent of a 50-lb. bale of hay.

Alfalfa cubes are most readily available. Feed stores will likely have, or be able to easily order, either locally produced alfalfa cubes, cubes from large companies in other parts of the country or cubes specifically formulated for horses. The Montana Pride line gives you the option of alfalfa or alfalfa-plus-grass hay cubes.

Most cubes come with a guaranteed fiber and protein content; some with other nutrient levels specified (see chart, page 6). Don’t purchase cubes without seeing a sample. All hay cube s contain about 9 to 10% moisture, but some pack the hay so tightly the cubes are rock hard and difficult to chew. You want cubes that will break in half easily. They should also be bright green (discoloration indicates aging and nutrient loss) and smell appetizing.

As with hay, if you form a group and are looking for a large load of hay cubes to buy direct, you can save money, even figuring in the shipping. At the time of this writing, Legal Alfalfa in Alberta, Canada, gave us a quote of $89.50 per ton for alfalfa cubes, half alfalfa/half timothy cubes or 75% alfalfa-25% grain cubes (predominantly oats) with bulk shipping costs by railroad car of $77/ton to our hypothetical location of Freehold, N.J., for a total cost of $166 per ton. This is less than half the price often paid for bagged alfalfa cubes (not necessarily high-quality cubes either) in many farm and feed stores in the Northeast.

Acceptable Alternatives
Hay is your horse’s primary source of roughage. However, if you bed your horse on shavings, you can feed straw and get just as much roughage and almost as many calories — and that all-important “chew factor” so the horse has something to occupy his time. The down side is that straw won’t supply the protein, vitamins and minerals of hay. Also, once your horse “learns” to eat straw you may not be able to bed him on it again. And, you need to be doubly sure your straw is clean and mold-free. Straw is not always put up as clean as hay.

If you’ve determined straw is your best choice for roughage during the hay shortage, you can make up the difference by feeding a vitamin/mineral and protein supplement, such as Triple Crown 30 (all grain types) or TDI 30 (complements oats; suitable for grass or alfalfa hay diets) along with your grain. Be certain to pick a supplement that is formulated for horses. You should also consult with your veterinarian or a nutritionist, even your local state agricultural extension agent (whose advice is usually very good — and free).

If you’re game to do it on your own using our hay-to-straw comparison chart (see end of story), you can fairly easily estimate how much of a protein and mineral supplement you need to feed to compensate for poor nutritional roughage. For best results, if feeding grain, use a properly supplemented grain mix with guaranteed analysis for major and trace minerals and values within the requirement ranges.

Next, figure out how much hay you normally feed and how much is being replaced by the poor-quality roughage. Let’s say it’s 10 pounds per day. For example, with protein, our chart shows straw provides about 4%, while your needs are in the neighborhood of 12% for a working horse, giving a deficit of 8%. You know that 8% of 10 pounds = 0.8 pounds of protein needed/missing, or 36.3 grams.

Protein/mineral supplements are formulated to make up the deficits in hay and grain diets, so odds are you won’t be able to match everything perfectly. If this is the case, focus on trace minerals. If you meet them, you will likely be in the neighborhood for protein and major-mineral needs. By using a high-quality supplemented product as your grain source, any small remaining deficits in protein and major minerals will probably be met.

Chewing Substitutes
You can also balance things using a combination of pelleted or cubed hay plus straw and the supplement to provide adequate nutrition. Other alternatives such as oat or peanut hulls can be used in a pinch — and are preferable to having the horse chew down his stall — but straw will be more readily accepted. Avoid all corn plant-based products (hulls, stalks, etc.) as contamination with even a small amount of Fusarium mold can be fatal.

Horses “spoiled” by having lots of quality hay may refuse straw at first. This won’t last long. When they’re hungry, they’ll eat it. You can improve the appeal of straw by spraying on CocoSoya (Uckele) — no horse will refuse this stuff! — or thinned molasses. Make up a molasses solution for spraying from powdered molasses or use the molasses you can buy in the store diluted with hot water and shaken well until you have a thin, easily sprayed liquid. (Use a one-quart plastic sprayer, but soak and wash it thoroughly between uses.)

Complete Feeds
Another option that will get you good nutrition, although not necessarily any savings, is a complete feed. “Complete” means it is all you need to feed; no hay is necessary because there is enough fiber in the feed.

Again, many horses will also need some straw or poor-quality hay to chew on to deter them from becoming equine beavers.

If your horse always needs to be chewing on something, look for a feed with a high fiber percentage. This will be a relatively low-energy feed, which means you will need to feed more of it per day than a higher energy-density feed (most performance formulas are high-energy-density). There are many complete feeds to choose from, most available regionally. Your feed store is the place to start.

Remember, however, that “complete” does not necessarily mean all nutrients are present at an adequate level. The guaranteed analysis on the tag will tell you which nutrients are always present in controlled amounts but those amounts vary widely between products. For other information you will have to contact the company and request a typical analysis.

If the feed is fixed-formula (see our February 1999 sweet feeds article), the typical analysis will mean more than if they regularly switch ingredient levels around. As with any feed change, the switch from hay and grain to a complete feed must be done gradually, over seven to 10 days. The transition will progress easiest if you choose one that contains the same type of concentrates and hays as you fed to your horse previously. You can find these listed under ingredients on the product’s feed tag.

Complete feeds should ideally be fed several times a day, not just twice, although you can get away with two. This is one instance where automated feeders are an advantage (see March 1998). The horse will have access to the complete feed at all times (fill the feeder with half the day’s allotment twice a day) but won’t be able to wolf it all down too quickly.

Bottom Line
If you’re still horrified at the idea of not feeding traditional hay and not sure your horse can handle this, remember that horses in other parts of the world, including Europe, get little if any hay and their performances don’t show any detrimental effects. We’re not saying we like the idea of giving up traditional hay, but we are saying there’s no reason to panic over feeding your horse this winter. You can keep him healthy with alternatives.

And remember that there is truly reasonably priced hay available across the United States and in Canada. There is no reason to pay much, if any more, for hay this winter. The choice is yours: Give in to inflated prices in your neighborhood, or look at the big picture and do something about it.

Contacts For Finding Hay
• East Valley View Farm, Paola, KS, 913/849-3471. Large round bales of brome grass hay at $35 to $45 a ton.
• Equity Livestock Auction, Lomira, WI, 920/269-4441. Hay is quality tested prior to auction. The December prices last year for quality tested alfalfa hay averaged about $100/ton for 20% protein, RFV premium-to-supreme, high NDF hay and $65/ton for 16% alfalfa. Hay at this auction is graded.
• GlobalHay.com Sales and Procurement. GlobalHay.com, 913/294-6161,E-mail: info@globalhay.com. High-quality timothy and alfalfa from Wyoming, Kansas and Minnesota producers.
• Good Earth Land & Livestock 308/247-2247 (NB), 970/587-5875 (CO), 888/425-3253, www.goodearth-alfalfa.com. They gave us an estimate of $100/ton and $84/ton shipping cost from a North Dakota to Pennsy lvania location, which works out to $6 for a 70-lb. bale, delivered.
• Hay Exchange, www.hayexchange.com.
• John Huss Hay & Straw, Woodville, OH, 419/849-2896, www.husshayandstraw.com.
• Kentucky Hay Hotline 888/531-8083.
• Maine Cooperative Extension Hay Directory 800/287-1426.
• Maryland State Drought Information: www.gov.state.md.us/gov/homepage/html/drought.html.
• Morgan Consulting, Paola, KS, 913/294-2920 www.forage.com; info@morgan-consulting.com.
• National Hay Association, St. Petersburg, FL, 800/707-0014; 727/367-9702, www.haynha.org.
• North Carolina Hay Alert (buyer/seller site): www.agr.state.nc.us/stats/hayalert.
• Transfeeder Inc., Forage Centre, Olds, Alberta, Canada,403/556-4100,403-556-4688, Email: info@Transfeeder.com.
• Wyoming Haybusters, Torrington, WY 307/532-4558, info@wyhaybusters.com. Cost estimate given as 80-90?? per loaded mile; familiar drought-relief programs that may apply to hay shipment cost assistance.

Hay Cubes and Chop/Chaff Products
• Cal Hay, Chowchilla, CA, 800/429-2823.
• Colorado Feeds, Las Animas, CO, 719/456-1589.
• First Thunder/Montana Pride, Dillon, MT 800/361-7080.
• Hidden Valley Alfalfa Cubes, Riverton, WY, 307/856-5893.
• Legal Alfalfa Products/Alfatec, Legal, Alberta, Canada, 780/961-3958.
• Lucerne Farms, Fort Fairfield, ME, 800/723-4923; www.lucernefarms.com.
• Triple Crown/Equine Specialty Feeds, Wayzata, MN 800/451-9916.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Horsepeople Are Partially To Blame.”
Click here to view “Standardized Hay Grading System.”
Click here to view “What About Grain'”
Click here to view “Guaranteed Analysis Of Complete Feeds.”
Click here to view “Consumer Beware.”
Click here to view “Hay Cube Products Descriptions.”
Click here to view “Avoid Large Bales.”
Click here to view “Nutrient Content – Hay vs. Straw.”
Click here to view “Easy Conversions For Hay Alternatives.”
Click here to view “Chop And Chaff Products.”

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!