Last year, Texas sizzled under hot, cloudless skies; hay fields and pastures shriveled. The most severe one-year drought on record wreaked havoc on anyone or anything that relied on normally bountiful supplies of grass and hay in the Lone Star State.
Texas wasn't the only state to suffer a shortage. Volatile weather patterns hampered other regions' hay production. With such patterns seeming to be the new norm, hay crises could crop up more frequently around the country.
To help you ride out a hay shortage, should you ever face one, we talked to three horse people who dealt with the Texas shortage from different perspectives: Barbara Deneve, an amateur rider who keeps two horses at her home in Richmond, Texas; John Howard, an award-winning hay grower in Bellville, Texas; and Don Brehm, owner of a feed store, Brehm's Feed Company, as well as a boarding facility, in Richmond, Texas. Their insights could help you keep a hay crisis at bay.
Put Together a Co-Op
One thing all our survivors agreed on was that the earlier in the growing season (late spring) you lineup your hay source, the better the odds of getting hay. In 2011, competition for Texas hay (and beyond) morphed from intense to rabid, and it only got tougher and costlier as the year dragged on.
Barbara ("Barb") Deneve didn't get an early start.
"I didn't bring my horse home from my trainer's barn until August of that year. So I was already behind when I started looking for hay sources," she recalls.
"I was used to buying around 10 or so bales at a time from local feed stores, because I lack storage. But they were charging $10 to $15 a bale for coastal Bermuda—if they had it—and there was a five-bale limit due to the shortage. I used to pay $7 to $8 a bale.
"Plus, some of it was of awful quality; my horses wouldn't eat it. And every shipment a feed store got in was different, which can really upset a horse"s digestive system. It soon became clear I"d have to find my own out-of-state source if I wanted good, consistent-quality coastal hay, which is the basis for my feeding program."
So Barb turned to the Internet and began searching for anyone selling hay. But her storage issue loomed. As did an early lesson in her online hay-shopping experience: You have to order by the truckload if you buy from out of state. "There's a minimum of 500 bales per rig for the seller to truck it in," Barb says.
That's when she started calling horse-owning friends.
"I found two who were willing to go in with me on a truckload of hay," she says. "One of my friends agreed to take 240 bales, and the other agreed to between 250 and 300. I made sure they understood we'd have to pay upfront; growers won't even load a rig unless they're paid in advance—and this load would require a five-figure cashier's check." (More about costs in a minute.)
"I cleaned out a 12-foot-by-12-foot stall in my barn that had been used for storage, so I could bring in 80 bales, which would last me until the 2012 growing season."
The fledgling co-op's biggest fear? Buying hay sight unseen.
"Since you pay first," explains Barb, "you're stuck with whatever hay is delivered. It's truly buyer beware."
So Barb narrowed her search to states in which she knew horse people who would go check out the hay source for her. And, she avoided hay brokers, choosing to buy directly from the grower, instead.
"Brokers distribute hay for multiple growers, so you don't know where it's coming from or what the quality is," says Barb. "I wanted consistent, high-quality hay from a single source that I could have someone check out."
She soon learned that most of the coastal hay in the Midwest had been snapped up, and that regions in the Northeast had their own shortage, due, ironically, to too much moisture.
It took weeks to finally find a source.
"There was nothing sophisticated about my search," Barb recalls. "I just called every friend and trainer I knew, looking for sources, and spent hours online after work, finding and calling growers."
As luck would have it, she found one near Orlando, Florida, who was advertising quality coastal hay online. He was located about two hours from her daughter Lauren, who works and goes to school in Tampa. Lauren, and experienced horsewoman, drove to the grower to evaluate the hay, and bought some sample bales for her horses to try. They gave the hay a "thumbs-up."
Barb placed her co-op's order. Fortunately, this grower had a relationship with a trucking company; some don't, meaning the buyer has to arrange shipping. (Shipping at that time ran from $1.35 to $1.60 a mile, depending on the load and truck size.)
Even with having to import hay from Florida to Texas, Barb and her hay-buying partners ended up spending less per bale than what they'd paid to local feed stores...and got better-quality hay.
"Per bale, trucked here, we paid $9.30," Barb says. "It would have been $6.50 a bale out of the field in Florida. The rest was trucking costs. It's good hay, and our horses love it. Now I have a great source if we ever go through another bad hay year here. That gives me peace of mind."