Updated: Feb 2
Well it's that time of the year again. The month that you peel off the duck tape covering the "ignorance is bliss" corner of the brain hiding your annual horse feeding expenses. In this article I use my own feed expenses and the experience of clients around the USA, to illustrate what is normal and where you are on the spectrum.
In short, it cost MORE to feed horses in 2022 compared to 2021. Surprise, surprise, right?!? This was highly predictable due to severe price hikes in 2022 for fertilizer and corresponding hay shortages around the country. Since moving back home to Montana, I've had a pretty sweet deal when it comes to hay sourcing, so you won't find me complaining about the increased cost per ton. However, calculating my annual and daily costs for hay + feed + supplements is a tool for thinking critically about my feed plan.
When I first purchased hay in 2020, I was paying about $260 per ton on average for several types (i.e. 1st and 2nd cutting grass, alfalfa, and alfalfa-grass mix). I do go pick up most of it off the field. In 2021, I estimated about $300-320 for a similar forage variety. For 2022 calculations, I chose not to trust the growers weight estimates. After weighing my hay flakes, hay bales, and checking receipts in January of 2023, I estimated that I spent $0.177 per pound ($350 per ton) on average across 4 hay types. Most of you can identify with this increase in hay costs. Many of you have seen it go up much more dramatically than 10%. You can read more about the economic pressures leading to higher hay prices in several articles linked below. You can also read my 2022 edition of "OCEN Equine Economics" to compare this year to last.
HOW DO YOU PRIORITIZE COST?
A fundamental principle in "OCEN Equine Economics 101"is to realize how differently we all prioritize cost when it comes to feeding and managing horses. Where you place feed and management costs compared to other costs in your life (equine, personal, and professional) is your "Cost Priority Number". Knowing your cost priority number is a Top Factor when deciding which diet plan is going to work for you long term, so I ask every client, and each of you, to place yourself on the spectrum of "cost priority" between 1 and 5. For many of us with tight budgets, too many horses, young professionals starting their careers, and seasoned professionals in depressed areas, the total cost of feeding and managing is a top priority. You will be on the left side of the spectrum as a 1. Before I go any further, I need EVERYONE to realize that you can absolutely make EXCELLENT horse diets on any budget. You do NOT need to be identify as a 4 or 5 on the spectrum to feed your horses well. I know that this seems counter intuitive considering our modern equestrian culture, but some of the worst diets on the planet are the really expensive ones! I can NOT stress this enough. For reference, I personally identify as a 2 on the spectrum, because I consider cost heavily in my feeding decisions. More specifically, I want great value for my dollar. However, for those of you with unlimited funds, fewer horses, and fewer expenses (such as competitions), you might identify as a 5 on the right side of the cost priority spectrum. The vast majority of horse feeders that I ask this of identify between 3-4. I think that my business is a bit self-selecting in the category, so if we shift the curve slightly left, I think the vast majority of people using their horses on a regular basis identify as a 2.5-3! *Leave a comment on this post about how you identify!
WHAT DOES A $5.00 PER DAY DIET LOOK LIKE?
What does a horses diet look like if you are on the left side of the spectrum? Let's consider someone spending $5 per day on hay, feed, and supplements which comes out to an annual feed bill of $1,825. It's rare in my line of work, but it is possible to find people spending less than $5.00 per day. If you are like me and weigh costs very heavily in your feeding choices, than your horse's diet plan is simplified in such a way to optimize the important stuff but keep costs low. A typical diet costing less than $5.00 per day will include hay below $250 per ton and include several months of moderate to high quality pasture. Having pasture access is a HUGE BONUS to your horse's feeding program, because it minimizes the amount of supplementation necessary to replace what is lost in stored forages (i.e. hay bales).
If you are spending less than $250 per ton, I can predict that you are purchasing a "local" grass hay mix that averages around 0.9 to 1 Mcal per pound and 8-11% crude protein. If your horse survives well on this, then I can also predict that you have a barn full of easy keepers, because high intensity performance horses, very old or very young horses, broodmares and hard keepers will not thrive on this hay without expensive supplementation. These horses are also free from diseases such as chronic ulcers, laminitis, allergies, and myopathy. Horses on this side of the cost per day spectrum are generally easy-keepers, because they do not have a high requirement for calories or protein which are expensive nutrients to add-in. You can create a well balanced diet with a simple trace mineral supplement or ration balancer and be done. *See the infographic below for reference.
An average 1,100 lb horse eating 2% of body weight will consume 22 lbs of hay. At $250 per ton or $0.125 per pound, that's $2.75 per day in hay.
There is an argument for calculating the "opportunity costs" of harvesting your pasture and totaling what you would gain from selling it at local prices, but I have NOT done that for this exercise. For example, I figure that I could get another 9ish ton of grass hay if my horses did NOT use it for pasture and then sell it at $250 per ton profit. My opportunity cost of pasturing my horses is therefore $2,250 per year.
WHAT DOES A $10-15.00 PER DAY DIET LOOK LIKE?
If you are like most of my clients, you are spending about $10-$15 per day to feed your horses and consider yourself a 3 or 4 on the cost priority spectrum. At $10 per day, you are spending $3,650 per year. I think that in this socio-economic equestrian situation this is a reasonable place to be for anyone feeding horses beyond the basics. When I say "beyond the basics" I mean that your horse is a regular competitor in sport, a senior horse that can't chew hay, a broodmare or growing foal with high requirements, or a horse with multiple special needs. Last year, I placed $10-$15 per day in the "unreasonable" side of the spectrum, but with myself and many friends/clients paying $350-$700 per ton of hay this year, this category has become more average. If I look at my own hay situation at the moment, my 1,200-1,300 lb horses are eating around 32 pounds of hay per day to stay warm in this frigid Montana winter. If I paid $350 per ton on average for the hay stacked in my barn, that's $5.60 in just hay per day! A friend of mine posted that she paid $650 per ton for a recent hay delivery which means even an average sized 1,100 lb horse would cost $7.15 per day to feed hay. As a final example, many of my Florida clients are paying upwards of $727 per ton of hay (+$40 per 110lb bales) which would cost $8.00 per day to feed 22lbs. In summary, the cost to feed your horses a basic hay diet, BEFORE FEED OR SUPPLEMENTS, has skyrocketed making $10-$15 per day totals more realistic.
Now, when we add feeds and supplementation on top of this hay diet for horses with "average" requirements, then we quickly get to that $10-$15 per day range. In my situation, I feed a ration balancer, a performance feed, a gastric buffer supplement and joint supplement to my queen-bee performance horse. This cost me about $5.70 per day to feed her last year which makes her daily feeding expense total (hay+ feed+ supplements) be $11.47. The others don't get more than the ration balancer, so they average about $1.46 per day in supplementation or $7.23 per day total.
Other examples in this $10-$15 per day range might include a senior horse with poor dentition that requires a forage replacer (i.e. senior feeds). It might also include a performance horse on an all hay diet (no pasture grass) that needs additional protein, vitamins and fatty acids lacking in the hay, because these ingredients are expensive to add. It might also include a laminitic pony that needs low carb hay and multiple anti-inflammatories or a very skinny new OTTB that needs to gain 120 lbs. There are many situations where the additional cost is warranted. Feeding $5 to $8 per day on feeds and supplements on top of your hay costs is normal.
Finally, and here's the clincher, if you are in this price range, you might also be feeding quite inefficiently meaning that you are duplicating products, not using products the way that the nutritionist intended, or adding products that don't align with your nutrition goals. This is extremely common in my experience. This is often what happens when you take advice from the internet.
WHAT DOES A $15-20.00 PER DAY DIET LOOK LIKE?
A diet costing $20 per day will cost your $7,300 per year- that's 14.5 horse show entries in my world and, yes, all of my feed costs are converted to horse show entries. I figure that for every $500 that I save in feed, I can go to another horse show. If you are spending over $500 per ton for hay and have 5-10 supplements in your feed room, it's reasonable to assume that you are spending more than $15 per day on your horse's diet, but this is definitely above what is normal. Once we get into the realm of $15+ per day, I almost ALWAYS find inefficiencies even when your horse has special needs and you live in Florida. Again, this means that you are duplicating products, not using products the way that the nutritionist intended, or adding products that don't align with your nutrition goals. In other words, your horse's diet plan lacks VALUE! You probably aren't seeing the results that you are looking for so you keep throwing things into the diet hoping that something works (but you're also too afraid to take anything out)! I see this a lot- owners who add supplements to trial them, but then never take them out, even when they don't see meaningful results. This compounding supplementation, though common, is extremely inefficient.
Schedule a Free 15 Minute Discovery Call with OCEN's nutritionist to see where your feeding inefficiencies lie!
I'm just going to go ahead and say it...if you are spending more than $20 per day on your horse's diet, please please please call me. My consultation service will pay you back in just a few months. Then, you can go to more horse shows and clinics and nights out with your partner. However, if you are spending less than $10 per day on your horse's hay+feed+supplements than HIGH FIVE! Well done. You're below average in this crazy time to be a horse owner. Finally, if you need help making these calculations, there are two ways OCEN can help. First option is to take the "Stop Guessing & Start Gloating" Full Length course. The second option is to click the link below to start a private nutrition consultation. Good luck in all of your 2023 endeavors and may fertilizer prices stabilize!!!