Quality forage should be the foundation of any feeding program, but stocking your barn with good hay doesn't come cheap. Hay prices rose in 2008, thanks to short supply and skyrocketing fuel costs, and horse owners shouldn't expect lower prices anytime this year.
"Prices are not coming down," notes Jay Vina, owner of Quality Hay Sales in Williston, Florida. "The amount of revenue generated by the horse industry has dropped dramatically, but the cost of hay and feed hasn't dropped. Not only did weather impact hay production, but also farmers looking for other ways to make money. Last year a lot of hay farmers went to growing corn and other grains because they could make more money."
Price per ton will vary depending on the quality and type of hay you buy and where it comes from. Consider bale weight when comparing prices; small bales can range in weight from as little as 50 pounds to as much as 125 pounds.
Large square bales have been fed to cattle for many years, but have recently grown in popularity with horse owners looking to save money. "With the price of freight and diesel now, it's easier to go with bigger bales to save on cost of baling and transportation," says Vina. "If you have the facility to store them, you'll have the same quality and value at a cheaper price than small bales."
When feeding large bales free choice, they should be off the ground and protected from the weather so they don't get damp and develop mold. Another option is to store a large bale in the barn and feed from it just as you would small bales. One "flake" from a large bale is equal to four or more flakes from a standard size bale.
Buying ahead makes sense if you have room and it also ensures that you will have a consistent supply of hay. "Before you buy a large quantity, buy a few bales and take them home to feed first. Make sure the same hay will be available after you 'test' it," suggests Greg Kimler, owner of Echo Valley Ranch in Auburn, California. "When you find hay that works for your animals, buy a year's supply if you have the storage."
When buying large amounts of hay, it's a good idea to have it analyzed so you know the protein percentage and can plan your grain ration based on the forage value. Many of Kimler's customers do this when buying a year's worth of hay at a time.
Experts say you can easily store a year's worth of hay without losing much, if any, nutritional value when you have the proper storage area. Hay should be stored out of direct sunlight in a dry, well-ventilated area and preferably on pallets so air can circulate underneath. This is advised even if your storage barn has a concrete floor as some moisture can still "bleed" through concrete.
Working with Your Hay Dealer
Hay dealers know their customers want consistent quality and typically buy hay from the same reliable suppliers, even if that means shipping long distances.
"We sell a lot more grass hay now than 20 years ago," notes Kimler, who has been in the hay business since 1970 and sells approximately 10,000 tons of hay per year. "People are realizing most horses don't need 18% protein alfalfa, and that alfalfa can also lead to enteroliths (intestinal stones). Our most popular horse hay is an orchardgrass/alfalfa mix."
"We will have hay, but we won't have the amount we normally have," Vina notes. "The third cutting is really the prime cut; we lost a lot of our third cuttings in the West because of the weather and an early winter. As far as 2009's crop, they won't start cutting until about mid-May or June, and we won't know until the cuttings come in."
"We've been in a drought out here (in the West) for a couple years, and (in 2008) some of my hay suppliers only got a couple cuttings instead of many more," Kimler adds. "It's looking like it may be the same this year."
Dealers expect hay availability to be somewhat lower in 2009. So begin now to put your hay-buying strategies together to ensure that your barn is filled with the best quality forage you can get.