The cost of keeping horses has been rising for some time now, but last year was an especially bad one when it came to finding hay. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, hay stocks fell to the lowest point they’d seen in a decade and in December 2022 were at their lowest since 1954. After a dry late summer and fall in many places, some 37 percent of the country is still considered to be in “extreme drought” conditions, with even more sitting at milder drought ratings despite recent precipitation.
According to statistics presented at a webinar hosted by the American Horse Council, the average cost of grass hay is up to $109 per ton nationally while alfalfa has climbed to $143 per ton. (This varies widely depending on where in the country you are.)
AHC President Julie Broadway said that hay prices and availability are subject to a variety of drivers, from the weather to fuel costs to fertilizer expenses and even the pricing/demand for hay from foreign countries that import it for their grazing animals.
Of course, this supply pinch impacts lots of farmers, but horse owners may have an even greater challenge keeping their animals fed when supplies are low since horses can’t tolerate the same lower quality hay that can be given to cattle.
Louise Calderwood, director of regulatory affairs for the Animal Feed Industry Association, said this is why horse owners need to be thinking about how to maximize the efficiency of their horses’ feeding programs.
Calderwood had the following tips for making the most of the hay that’s available:
–Minimize waste. In some parts of the country, early spring means the snow’s melting in pastures and revealing spots where hay has been wasted during the winter. In other places, it’s full-on mud season, and even more hay is being wasted than usual.
Even small amounts of wastage from round bale hay will add up and if you’ve been lucky enough to find good quality hay, that’s a significant loss. There are commercially-produced hay shelters and feeders as well as extra-large hay nets that can slow horses from pulling hay out of the bale or keep hay off the ground. One of the best things you can do is to keep rain off a bale to avoid mold growth that could make inner layers unsafe or unappetizing for horses.
Calderwood showed these examples of cheaper, homemade hay shelter solutions.
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–Acquire and learn how to read a hay analysis. Forage analysis results can be intimidating to a lot of horsefolk. Even if you know how to read the tag on a commercial grain, forage analysis can throw out some measurements you may not be used to.
Calderwood focused on a handful of results that are most important for horse owners to know.
-Dry Matter: Refers to the percentage of the bale that’s dry versus moisture. DM under 86% means there’s a higher chance the bale wasn’t dry enough when it was stored, raising the chances of mold formation or dust.
-Crude Protein: This will be familiar from a feed tag. Most horses need at least 12% crude protein from their diet, whether that all comes from hay or not.
-Acid Detergent Fiber: Tells you how mature the hay was when it was harvested. The more fibrous the hay is, the more mature the plants probably were, which means it’ll be more stemmy, less appealing for the horse, and harder for them to digest.
-Net Energy for Maintenance: This is often given in megacalories per pound, but depending on where you live, your forage lab may be gearing its results for cattle farmers and may read this out as total digestible energy or energy “for milk production.”
The easiest way to use the number you’ve got is to consider that the average 1,000-pound horse will need about 14 megacalories of net energy per day. If that same horse eats about 2 percent of its body weight per day, the question for you is whether the Net Energy reading from your hay supply will give them enough calories by itself. If not, you may need to supplement, depending on your horse’s breed and workload.
–Know how much hay you’re really feeding. This may mean getting a hanging scale to help you measure the same amount of hay for each feeding. Most of us gauge amounts by “flakes” that machinery divides square bales into, but different bale densities may mean that a flake could be very different weights – and nutrition contents – from bale to bale.
–Use the forage analysis to cater your overall feed program. The hay may fall short in terms of calories and protein when compared to your horse’s overall requirements, and that’s usually the reason owners supplement forage with a commercially-mixed grain. Use the analysis to help you decide what the horse is lacking from their hay, and let that guide your feeding of a concentrate or ration balancer. Ask your veterinarian, local extension service, or equine nutritionist to help you.
–Reassess your program every few months. Horses lose and gain weight slowly, so when you see them every day it’s easy to miss changes. Make a note to review the horse’s workload, weather conditions, and body condition score every few months and keep good records.
–If you can find pelleted or cubed forage, you may be able to supplement your existing supply with that. It’s probably cost prohibitive to expect you could replace all your forage with a cubed product, as these can run as high as $800/ton, but it may help you stretch out your hay supply longer. The other advantage to cubed products is that they’re consistent in weight and quality.
–Consider your herd groupings. It can get tricky to feed horses with very different diet needs in the same area but many people prefer to do this to save time. Keep an eye on your horses’ behavior to see if anyone’s being bullied away from their feed. It may ultimately save you money to feed separately if it means everyone’s getting what they need.
–Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The United Horse Coalition maintains a webpage called the Equine Resource Database, which lists feed, hay, veterinary, and gelding assistance programs state by state. This can often be an underutilized resource for horse owners facing hard times from a job loss or rising costs.