California Riding Magazine • November, 2011

The Gallop: Help!
Hay prices are outrageous.

by Kim F. Miller

There's a catch in Sue Petrofsky's voice when she talks about today's hay prices. The Ramona resident owns two horses, aged 21 and 25, and is hard pressed to keep up with hay prices that have doubled in less than a year. "I don't know what I'll do if it goes to $30 a bale, like I hear it might. My horses are not exactly sellable ages and, anyway, I would hate to do that. I've had one of them since he was born."

Hay prices hit an all-time high this year and some predict prices will go even higher, possibly $400 a ton for good quality alfalfa by January of next year. Assuming the typical 20 bales per ton, that's $20 per bale, $1.60 to $2 per flake. We're not there yet, but prices have been jumping upward continually for some time.

Terri Eadens wistfully recalls paying $170 a ton for good quality alfalfa hay in 2003, when she opened her horse retirement facility in Central California's Lockwood. A master at keeping costs down for the owners of the 45 horses she cares for, Terri reports that the latest truck and trailer load of hay she purchased was $325 a ton.

Sue Funkey can't buy in bulk. She maintains three horses and one donkey in the Northern California foothills. They are doing well on "yellow" hay made of oat, wheat or Sudan hays, but she's suffering severe sticker shock. "In May, I called the farmer that I purchased great Sudan from last year. His hay, last year, was $6 a bale or $96 a ton. This year, his starting price was $10 a bale or $160 ton. I held my breath! I couldn't believe it! I do not have the ability to buy in quantity due to both storage and cash. So I buy maximum 10 bales each time I buy."

Deals on hay are going, going, gone. "About this time last year I discovered a friend's grandfather sold oat hay at $55 a ton," Sue continues. "When I talked to my friend early this year he said the price had gone up to $60 a ton, which was OK. But, when the hay was just ready to be cut, he tells me that he can't sell me any hay because someone came in and offered his grandfather $130 a ton for all his hay so he couldn't sell me any!"

Exports Are Blamed

The increases are due to myriad variations on the laws of supply and demand. Supply has been down since farmers began planting land with more profitable crops, including corn and wheat. Those who've stuck with hay have had their output decreased by bad weather, typically too much or too little rain. That's especially true in drought-stricken Texas and the water-logged East Coast. Most California horses eat hay grown in California or elsewhere on the West Coast, where the weather hasn't wreaked such havoc. But the Texas troubles
in particular have increased demand on the local supply.

The export of hay to other countries is taking the brunt of blame for high prices. "A lot of our supply is going overseas," explains hay broker Ed Bernard of Oak Ranch Hay Sales in Paso Robles. Countries led by China, Japan and Saudi Arabia are buying more hay from American farmers and paying more for it. "America has always exported hay, but foreign buyers are getting more aggressive," he continues. The dollar's poor value relative to foreign currency makes matters worse, he adds.
"Right now we have to either match or exceed the prices foreign buyers are offering to get our hay," Ed says.

A recent article in the agricultural news website, Capital Press, reported that China buys less than .5 percent of the entire U.S. alfalfa production and that just six to seven percent of West Coast grown hay is exported. Nonetheless, some horse owners feel it's time to bring high hay prices to their legislator's attention. Tariffs on hay exports would level the playing field for domestic buyers, some assert.

Sue Petrofsky got a prompt response back from Congressman Duncan Hunter when she e-mailed him in mid-October about hay prices. He promised to continue monitoring the situation, but "essentially said he's not going to do anything about it right now," she reports. Sue hopes fellow horse owners will force the issue by bringing it to the attention of their local legislators. It's possible the general public may take up the cause, she notes. "Hay prices are going to affect everything: the price of milk, butter, cheese..."

Cloudy Crystal Balls

"I think there will be an even bigger shortage next year," Ed predicts. "I've been on the phone talking to a lot of people and nobody's crystal ball is that clear right now as far as what is going to happen." One potential bright spot is that the current high demand may inspire farmers to resume growing hay. "That may help level things off a bit.
"There's not that much a consumer can do about it," he continues. In the past, Ed has been able to find that point in the harvest season when there was hay building up waiting to be baled and farmers were sometimes willing to sell it slightly cheaper. "But that didn't happen this year. Prices stayed very firm."

Ed's Oak Creek Ranch Hay Sales serves horse and cattle owners and he is all too aware of their financial hardships. "I'm not sure I'll be able to stay in business if my customers can't afford to buy hay." The dairy industry is taking a hard hit. In the horse world, where most own horses as an expendable hobby, high feed costs make it even harder
to maintain horses in these already tough economic times.

Marge Ricketts at "R" Hay & Grain in Escondido acknowledges that many customers are complaining about hay and feed costs while also "taking it in stride." She's noticed that a few customers are looking at switching to pelleted hays. These are a bit less expensive, either because the hay it's made of was bought before the current high prices or is not of top quality.

"Some horses do really well on pellets," says Dr. Clair Thunes of Summit Equine Nutrition. Pelleted hay is usually easier to store in large quantities and is less likely to go to waste. They are usually chewed faster than hay, however, which can contribute to boredom and also reduces the amount of beneficial bicarbonates produced in saliva
while chewing.

"A lot of our customers are actually feeding more expensive hays," Marge notes. "Some are switching from alfalfa and Bermuda to orchard and timothy, because the prices aren't that different." Few customers are buying any "goodies," she adds. "The things we can make some profit on. They are just buying feed."

Horses are not easily fooled when it comes to the quality of their food. "They know the difference between good hay and bedding," Terri Eadens says. "I tried a forage mix once and the horses ate the good grains, then peed and pooped on the rest of it. They used it for bedding."

Buying hay in bulk will save some money, Terri notes. That's feasible for boarding stables with adequate storage, but not so much for individual horse keepers. "Form a co-op with your neighbors," Terri suggests. "You will at least save on the feed store's delivery charges."
Los Angeles area equine wellness consultant Susie Lytal says her three-strand orchard bales have gone from $1.25 to $21.95 per bale. "To balance out the increases in hay prices I have increased the amount of beet pulp my horses get because the price of that roughage has been more stable and has increased at a slower rate than hay," she says. "Thank goodness my horses are easy keepers!"

"Save the hay you have!" urges Clair Thunes. Weighing hay, rather than feeding it by the flake, can minimize waste. Feeding in any of a growing number of "slow feeder" devices is a good bet. Available in the shapes of barrels, water troughs and other designs, slow feeders force the horse to take its time consuming hay. Clair cautions that it's healthiest for horses to eat food served at ground level—which helps their respiratory system drain—but not off the ground. A rubber mat under hay can be an ideal arrangement. "Throwing a flake of hay over the stall door is a huge waste of money," she notes. "You can save yourself a lot of money by how you manage your hay, while still feeding what benefits your horse."

Editor's Note: If you would like to join the bandwagon in bringing hay prices to your Congress representative's attention, visit www.house.gov/writerep/ for contact information. To reach California Senators and Assemblymen, visit legislature.ca.gov.