Every year I use my own budgeting data to summarize for you the average diet for horses. This year, I compare forage and feed prices between Western Montana and Southern California. Check out my daily cost chart comparison below.
I'm snow birding! In exactly 28 days, my horses and I will be in Southern California- a 1,280 mile pilgrimage from Southwest Montana. The current temperatures across Montana are anxiety inducing. We reached -20 degrees Fahrenheit locally, but other parts of the state reached -50, so I suppose I can't complain too much. Needless to say, I'm feeling pretty good about my decision to head south next month. The skiing has been non-existent and bird hunting season is over, so HELLO sunshine, palm trees, and weekly cross country schooling. However, the cost of horse goods in Southern California is also anxiety inducing! Between the fuel costs, hay costs, boarding costs, I'll be horse poor before the Area VII show season even starts!
Every year I've written about the cost of feeding horses from my perch in the northern rural parts of the USA. I have shared my annual horse feed expenses in articles such as "Equine Economics: What does it cost to feed horses these days" (January, 2022) and "What is a Normal Daily Horse Feed Expense in 2023" (January 2023), because I think my costs are likely indicative of the average across the USA. However, I'm also very aware of costs in the southern and more urban areas of the country, because my clients share them with me. So, for this year's equine economics lesson, I'm going to compare my Montana costs with what I'm going to be spending in California. Caution: if you enjoy your innocent ignorance of horse expenditures, I got you, but don't read further!
So, here’s what you need to know about my annual feed expenses for four horses in 2023 compared to 2022. It’s pretty good news! The average cost per ton of hay went down $24 per ton compared to 2022 and that included paying for someone else to stack most of it in the barn. I’m calling that a BIG win! I spent a total of $4,500 for 13.8 tons (unconfirmed by bale weights). That means I paid $326 per ton in 2023 averaged across four different hay sources; 1 large 1,200 lb local grass hay bale for free-feeding, a first and second cutting local grass mix, and 6 tons of alfalfa hay. Averaging all forages, I spent $0.163 per pound of hay. Outside of this cold snap, the horses were consuming about 27 lbs per day each, so that’s $4.40 per horse per day mid-winter.
Assumptions = 1,200 lb horse eating 27 lbs per day of hay is intaking 2.25% of it's body weight per day in hay. During the most severe cold, I figure that they are eating 2.67% of their body weight per day or 32 lbs per day.
The Montana hay season goes like this; 3 months of “seasonal freakout” followed by 9 months of quiet. The seasonal freakout means that between the months of July and September you must be ready on any given day to head to a hay field and handle 8,000 lbs or more yourself. You keep ratchet straps, good gloves, and water bottles in your truck at all times. The advantages of this system are 1) it’s less expensive off the field, and 2) once it’s stacked in the barn you can breathe easy for the next 9 months.
As far as feed is concerned, I keep one ration balancer and one performance feed in stock in my feed room at all times. *I'm going to skip the spattering of supplements in this cost comparison, because most of them are purchased online and are relatively similar across the country. The majority of my horses are pretty easy keepers, so they just get a ration balancer every day. The ration balancer increased to $37.49 per 50# bag in the last year. At an average of 1.5 lb fed per horse per day, that’s $1.13 per horse per day or $411 per horse per year at current prices.
There’s one harder-keeper on the farm right now, and he gets about 7 lbs of a performance feed per day. At $27.99 per 50# bag, that’s $3.92 per day and $1,431 per year. I’m assuming that he is not going to need that amount for the entirety of the year, but this is a comparative exercise, so I'm using the simple labels of hard keeper versus easy keeper to illustrate the extremes.
So, right now, in Montana, I'm paying $5.53 per day for the easiest keeper and $8.32 per day for the hardest keeper on the farm.
Now, let’s compare and contrast my Montana feed and forage scene to the California scene that I will be arriving in late February. If I can’t get large hay loads delivered to the farm, I may need to buy small loads of hay from the feed store weekly. I get the impression that feed store hay buying is a lot more common in this area. The culture of hay is different.
My Google search found one promising feed store close to the facility that carried a wide range of forages. I chose the alfalfa and timothy hay mix to best reflect an average diet though I could buy bermuda hay for cheaper (maybe I will when I get there and see it). A 100# bale of timothy hay for $37 will cost me $0.37 per pound and a 100# bale of alfalfa hay for $20 is only $0.20 per pound. If I feed 50% alfalfa (13.5 lbs) plus 50% timothy (13.5 lbs), then the daily forage cost is $7.70 per horse per day. I might need to confirm these bale weights when I get down there. Regardless, I’m going to be paying about $3.30 more per horse per day for the same amount of forage in California- that's a 75% increase in daily hay prices compared to Montana. Over the course of a full year that would be $2,811 versus $1,606 per horse in hay costs.
I also called the local Tractor Supply as a backup and learned that they carry 50 pound compressed hay bales. The compressed bales are super convenient, and I'm ok paying a little bit more for convenience, but after a quick calculation I decided against it. At $25 for a 50# bale of alfalfa, I’ll pay $0.50 per pound- 3x the cost I pay per pound in Montana. The timothy hay may very well be laced with omeprazole seeing as you’ll pay $28 per 50#s. That’s $0.56 lbs or $15 per day to feed 27 lbs. That is outside of my convenience budget!
The feed comparison is more reasonable. I’ll pay $41.99 for a 50# bag of the same ration balancer- a 12% increase over Montana prices. I’ll actually pay very slightly less for the performance feed- a negative $0.70 per bag difference. Using the same calculations above, I’ll have the following daily costs for feed.
Easy Keeper getting 1.5# of Ration balancer = $1.26 per day in California compared to $1.13 per day in Montana.
Hard Keeper getting 7 lbs of Performance feed = $3.82 per day in California compared to $3.92 per day in Montana.
So, in California, I'll pay $8.96 per day for the easiest keeper and $11.52 per day for the hardest keeper (good thing I only have one of those).
Here is what I've learned from this exercise.
Daily feed costs have gone the route of the $5 foot long from Subway. It's nearly impossible to feed horses for less than $5 per day anymore unless you have a very small horse, grow your own hay, and only feed an inexpensive trace mineral supplement. Sad but mostly true.
The major cost differences in feeding horses in Montana versus California is in the cost of forage. This is most likely due to shipping costs. Ex: shipping timothy hay from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California.
Cost of feeds and supplements aren't that different between Montana and California when you calculate cost per pound rather than cost per bag. Maybe the feed company has a manufacturing location close by.
We are incentivized by cost in California to feed very high calorie products such as alfalfa and performance feeds. This is great news for the hard keepers, but horrible news for the easy keepers. Just like in human diets, it costs more to eat low calorie feedstuffs.
In California, you may pay the same cost per pound for forage as you do feed. If your horses are in medium to heavy work and they need the calories, then feeding performance feeds improves your overall feed efficiency.