In her Commentary oon the back page of the?Horse Journal?s?December issue, Associate Editor Margaret Freeman praises the horse people of Tryon, N.C., for creating the Foothills Hay Pledge, their clever way to deal with hay shortages caused by drought or the dwindling number of acres producing hay across the country. it's an example of something a horsey community like Tryon can do to help themselves and their neighbors.
I'm on the Board of Directors of the Equine Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org), and at our October meeting, we had as a guest speaker Tom Creech, a leading hay supplier in horse-filled Lexington, Ky. He told us something that surprised us: In his opinion, the leading cause of the continuing decline in U.S. hay production is not suburban sprawl. In his opinion, the leading cause of declining hay production is more and more farmers growing corn for ethanol production instead of growing hay.
Tom told us that in 2011, the number of farm acres producing hay declined by 4.1 percent, from 60 million acres to 57.5 million acres. That, he said, means seven to eight million fewer tons of hay were made this year! Meanwhile, corn production increased by 5 percent (the third consecutive annual increase), and cotton production increased by 25 percent. Corn, Creech told us, is 2 ? times as profitable as hay.
While corn is used to feed humans and many animals, a big reason for the expanding crop of it is ethanol production. Tom confirmed my understanding that ethanol is a big lie that's been swallowed whole by the American public. The myth says that it's a greener fuel than fossil fuels, but that's only if you ignore the fact that it requires gasoline or diesel to plant the seeds and to fertilize the plants, it requires lots of water to grow, and then it needs more fossil fuels to harvest the corn and then to process it into ethanol.
Development does claim hay fields each year, but Tom said those are usually relatively small parcels (less than 100 acres). We notice them more, however, because they're close to the towns where we live and keep our horses. Their primary effect is that buying hay costs us more, because it has to come from farther away. He said that usually, if a farmer decides to retire or quit, he sells his land to another farmer. He added that the majority of large hay fields are still far enough from metropolitan areas to remain unpressured by development.
Tom said that the bigger challenge to horse owners, especially in the eastern half of the country, is that fewer and fewer hay growers are making small (two-string) bales of hay. More and more are making the three-string bales common here in the West?because it's cheaper and easier to make them and to transport and stack them.
?I'm begging guys to keep their small balers,? Creech told us, because small bales are what the people who buy his hay want.
I've gotten pretty used to these big bales, which weigh about 100 to about 125 pounds, but I miss the bales that are half that size I'd known for 40 years before I moved to California. I thought moving the two-string bales was hard work, but it's child?s play compared to the three-stringers. I watch in amazement as the guys who deliver our hay swing them up on their shoulders and stack them four or five bales high!
Tom said the big bales have a major drawback in the East: it's easier for mold to grow inside them. that's obviously bad for the horses, but the people who buy the hay don't like losing half the bale to mold either.
He also pointed out that another potential problem for horse owners who like to fee their horses hay?the growing popularity of hay cubes. The farmers like them because they don't have to worry so much about keeping the hay dry and because just about all of the grass they cut gets used in the cubes. But the cost of transporting the cut hay to the manufacturing plant and the cost of compressing that hay into cubes, and then shipping the bags to stores, makes them an uneconomical choice for most horse owners. Plus, the cubes don't have the roughage value of hay bales.
Getting and paying for hay is going to be a continuing challenge for us horse owners.