For much of the U.S., the cost and availability of hay has been worrisome since mid-2007. Here in Kentucky, the situation was caused by a hot, dry summer's drought that parched the land and kept hay from growing. (Read more on TheHorse.com: rising hay prices, hay prices affect horse rescue, hay shortage inspires alternative forages.) Lack of supply meant rising prices and forced horse owners to import forage from long distances. I know a lot of Florida farms this year trucked in their hay from Canada or the northwest U.S. With gas prices as high as they are, the prices were astronomical. I've heard reports of $18 bales of hay (two years ago, we paid $2.75 per bale). I've also seen a lot of local farms clearing out their barns, selling leftover hay from 2006 cuttings, and from 2005 and 2004, and probably quite a bit from even earier years. Hay can be kept for a while, of course, without losing too much nutritive value -- but some of this stuff had to be bathed in dust and terribly dried out.
Where I board, I usually have to cut the pastures once a month. In 2007, I only cut one time all year, in early April. The horses kept the fields well-trimmed after that, and by late summer, they'd nibbled down to the roots, which then got further burned out by arid conditions.
Winter was rough. With 10 head, we can usually get by comfortably with 325 bales of hay since we also feed grain to all the horses. But we usually start throwing hay in mid-December. This year, it was mid-October. After burning through the initial 300+ bales, we had an additional delivery of 100 bales... then another 75. Two weeks ago, I took the trailer out 50 miles to pick up some "bargain" hay at $4.50 a bale (once a fair price for good alfalfa hay, but this year, it purchased low-quality mixed grass that I felt bad offering to my horses). This past weekend, I went to a local feed distributor and purchased a couple of dozen bales of alfalfa to mix in with the remaining grass hay. I'm hoping that's the last purchase for this year.
By late March, we're usually able to wean all the horses (save the broodmares) off supplemental hay. In 2008, the fields are just starting to green up and the grass doesn't have a chance to rise before the horses eagerly nip off any growth. Spring seems finally to have arrived, though, and I'm optimistic that we'll see real grass in the next couple of weeks. The question is, how much damage has been done?
After the land was parched with drought, the winter brought a deluge. Huge quantities of rain turned the fields into slop, made worse because the grass roots that normally hold together the earth below were compromised and couldn't do their office. Large sections of our pastures -- and those of all the farms I've seen in the area -- are going to require a lot of work to get back into shape. In addition to putting in question the quality of spring and summer grazing, it also raises concern for winter 2008-09: will the industry recover in time to produce sufficient hay for next winter?
I'm going to see how things develop over the next few weeks. If there's not a dramatic growth season in early spring, I think I'll plan to pre-purchase some hay from the northwest for the end of the year. Several outfits in Wisconsin and South Dakota and elsewhere grow beautiful hay and truck it down to the less well endowed states with large horse populations. The negatives are it's not cheap ($6 or more a bale, paid well in advance) and the minimum quantitiy is usually a semi-truckload (650 to 725 bales). The benefits are high-quality forage and peace of mind.