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What High Fertilizer Prices Mean for Horse Owners

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

Higher carb hays, skinnier horses, poor top lines and less feed efficiency. I know this isn't what you want to hear in the middle of an inflation crisis, but it's worse than high feed and forage costs. Read on to learn how you can fortify yourself against these negative externalities of high fertilizer costs.

We've all been talking about the painful ching-chings at the grocery store- how our typical grocery bill has increased by...oh... 7-13 percent. This inflation crisis is hitting horse owners hard too with hay suppliers and at local feed stores! So, how are these two receipts similar? They all go back to fertilizer costs. Allow me to predict how these fertilizer costs are going to affect the 2022 hay season. ***WARNING*** it's not good!

Several recent events have led me to ponder the equestrian implications of high fertilizer costs this growing season. It started with a potassium problem. I returned home from a 10 day 'non-horsey' road trip to find my 3.5 acres of lush grass pasture curled up and dead at the tips. I dug up this year's spring fertilizer guaranteed analysis and called my old grad school advisor Dr. Steve Fransen, Washington State's 40+ year veteran of the PNW forage industry. I sent him the following photos of my grass plants and the fertilizer tag, and this is what he said, "looks like a potassium deficiency". And, of course, it all added up- the yellowing and "burning" at the tips, the lack of K in the fertilizer mix, the extreme spring weather patterns, the freezing temps, and the most recent soil test. I realized, that in an effort to keep fertilizer costs down, my neighborhood coop had skimped on the last digit of the fertilizer 31-10-0 mix- potassium (K). Two years ago the neighborhood of hay and pasture growers had paid $14.50 per 50 pound bag of fertilizer, last year we paid $19.40 per bag and this year we paid $28.70 per bag. That's double what we paid 2 years ago!!! To counter the potassium deficiency, I had to buy several more bags of 0-0-62 pot ash (potassium fertilizer) for fall application. These bags were an additional $33 per 50 lb bag!

After a discussion of my field's deficiency, Fransen and I turned our attention to the greater response of the PNW forage industry to high fertilizer costs. Paying double for my little 3.5 acres of pasture wasn't going to break the bank, but what about 30 or 300 acres?! I paid about $110 per acre, so if we extrapolate that to a larger grower that's $33,000 for 300 acres of ground. What are some of the very best growers doing in the wake of high fertilizer prices? How did that compare to what my local hay growers were doing in Montana and what did that mean for horse owners.

The honest truth is that growers are cutting back. Either they are limiting the number of fertilizer applications, limiting the quantity or quality of each fertilizer application, cutting fewer times per season, and/or not fertilizing at all! Here are the 3 ways in which this will affect YOU and YOUR horse.

#1: HIGHER COSTS: Lower Yields and Tighter Supply

The yield of a hay field is measured in the number of tons cut and baled per acre. For example, a typical yield for a timothy field might be 2.5 tons per acre for first cutting and 1.75 tons per acre for second cutting. When growers apply LESS nitrogen to their grass hay fields in the form of fertilizer, they get less tons per acre produced. There is a very direct and well documented relationship between nitrogen and yield. My local Montana grower paid $143 per acre for fertilizer this year. That means that, if she gets a really great 3 tons per acre yield, then at least $48 per ton is just fertilizer cost. And that's just a fraction of the inputs seeing as the tractor will require 6-7 gallons per hour to spread, harvest and bale at over $5 per gallon.

Here's my prediction... I think that most growers will cut back in small ways that will add up to big effects in the market as a whole. One grower will cut back on the amount of nitrogen applied per acre. Another grower won't fertilize that second cutting. Yet another grower will apply a lower quality fertilizer. How do you plan for this forage shortage? You do that by becoming more purposeful with your forage choices. You ask yourself, "what are the most important nutrients that my horses get from the hay available and then how do I compliment that with feeds and supplements in the most efficient way possible?" "Is there a better, more readily available forage source that meets my horses' needs?" To answer this question wisely, you get a forage test done. If you don't get a forage test done, you call a nutritionist who knows a lot about forages and can help you make forage first decisions. This is what we do at OCEN all day long.

#2: SKINNIER HORSES: Late maturity cutting to increase yield limits digestibility

One way that growers increase the yield of their grass hay crops is to allow the plants to grow bigger and taller by cutting several weeks later. In other words, the plans are OLDER when cut. When plants get older, the digestibility of the energy, protein and micronutrients goes down. When digestibility goes down, horses can't get as many calories out of their primary forage. When horses don't get enough calories out of their primary forage and owners don't increase feed, the horses get skinnier. This may be especially true for older horses, high performance horses, and broodmares. This may be THE year to test your forages so that you can get ahead and plan for the possibility of lower calorie forages. If you have generally hard keepers, this is the year to plan smarter.

#3: High Non-Structural Carbohydrate Values: Less fertilizer means higher NSC% forage products

One message that came out loud and clear in my four years of low carb teff grass research, was the strong relationship between nitrogen fertilization and happy, low carb grass plants. Even as we studied other growing and harvesting factors, we often saw the effects of good fertilization trump everything else. It is with this knowledge that I predict an overall higher non-structural carbohydrate load in this year's hay crop. This does NOT imply that ALL forages will be high carb, but less fertilizer applications (combined with other environmental stressors) will make it more difficult to produce low carb hay. If and when farmers cut back on fertilizer, they will, in essence, increase the plant's susceptibility to stress and this will create a bottleneck of simple carbohydrates to accumulate in the plant. This will show up as a lower "low carb hay" supply.

#4. Poor Top Lines: Less fertilizer means lower protein hay

Less nitrogen fertilization also means lower protein hay sources. PERIOD. That forage that tested 13% crude protein last year, might only be 10% this year without proper fertilization. In addition, as grass plants get older, they decrease the amount of available protein which, as we mentioned above, could be one tactic used by growers to increase yield. Less fertilizer and more mature plants means that high performance, active, and older horses’ muscle development will suffer. Unfortunately, no matter how you try to swing it, protein is an expensive ingredient. I recommend sourcing more alfalfa hay to counter a lower quality, lower protein forage if you have horses in those categories.

What to do, What To Do?

The active, productive way to plan for these potential forage supply issues is to reevaluate everything you ever thought you knew about forages. Ok, my apologies, that's an overwhelming task. Here's what you can do that is easier. Get a forage test or ask your forage growers and suppliers for a forage test so that you can understand 5 key numbers; energy density (Megacalories per pound), crude protein, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber, and water soluble carbohydrates. Those 5 numbers which can be summarized by the Relative Feed Value number which will tell you everything that you need to know to plan for your forage season. And if you put it in the barn BEFORE you test, that's totally ok too!!! Please go ahead and buy the forage that is affordable, dust and mold free, the right bale size and looks generally green. Then, stop caring about that and get a forage test done- you can get help from a nutritionist, a local feed/supplement rep, or your local county extension agent. This will help you plan ahead for HOW THAT HAY will behave in your horse. Energy density (related to fiber values), water soluble carbs, and crude protein will give you a really good idea if your horse will get skinny or fat, estimate their risk for laminitis, tell you what their manure will look like, and if they will be able to build muscle under good work. Plan ahead- that's the message!

OCEN has a "Low Carb Horse Hay Project" series available to its Community Members. The third lecture in the series is titled "Sourcing and Buying Low Carb Horse Hay". You might enjoy that, so start by clicking MEMBERSHIP above and join the herd.

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