Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Yes, the current state of the horse hay industry is scary and stressful, but we should have seen this coming. Hefty hay prices WILL BE the new normal for a myriad of reasons that most horse owners do not understand. Let's take a closer look at a few of these reasons and suggest some solutions.
Several coincidences came together this week that led me to ponder hay production and prices; a podcast, a Facebook post, a client, and a convention. Five years imbedded in the Pacific Northwest forage industry taught me a lot about how the industry as a whole operates and the individuals inside that industry- their priorities, motivations, and influences. As a grad student for the highly regarded Washington State forage extension specialist, I got to shake the hands of many a hay farmer on their own land. One of the most profound experiences in my education was the opportunity to speak about equine needs at several regional and national forage industry gatherings including the Northwest Horse Expo that happens every January and the Western States Alfalfa and Forage Symposium. [You can access many of the publications stemming from those lectures in magazines like "Hay & Forage Grower" and "Progressive Forage" on my Low Carb Horse Hay Project website.] Let me share a little secret that is VERY hard to horse owners to swallow...on the grandest scale of the forage industry, horses are of very little concern and many forage producers want nothing to do with us. On a more local level, many of the o'l time farmers with the equipment are tired of producing hay for free, getting beat up in the process, and are understandably getting out of the business.
This local phenomenon was well summarized in an article I read this week in my local newspaper, The Ravalli Republic, called "Bitterroot hay producers face a myriad of challenges." I highly recommend reading this article no matter where you live in the United States. The same day, I listened to The NY Times- The Daily Podcast about beef prices from the perspective of a Montana cow/calf rancher. The podcast episode is called "Who Do You Want Controlling Your Food", and it highlights the sacrifices that farmers and rancher make to continue their craft. I saw this first hand working for the country’s largest agricultural cooperatives for 12 years. You should come back to BOTH of these ASAP!
The Problems You Face
1. The overwhelming majority of forages produced in the U.S. does not go to horses. If the 2017 National Economic Impact of the the US Horse population is roughly correct, then there are over 7 million horses in the U.S. There are, however, over 90 million cattle according to the US. Department of Agriculture (2021 Census). Believe it or not, when I go to forage industry conferences, I am the ONLY person talking about equine needs and the crowds are relatively small and that's only one year in decades. The fact is, the vast majority of forage produced will go to the beef and dairy industries. And I'm not just talking about the U.S. forage industry feeding the U.S. population of cattle, they are also feeding the global population of livestock. A lot of what get's produced in the Western States gets loaded onto ships and carried across the oceans to markets in Japan, China, and the Middle East. A friend who worked at one of nine Ellensburg hay exporting companies said they send nearly 200 truck containers of hay to Seattle ports EVERY SINGLE DAY. That's a lot of hay that isn't going to local horse owners, and what does is highly influenced by global market prices.
2. Land Grabs Everywhere. Do a little exercise with me. Close your eyes and fly like a bird over your neighborhood. Now spiral out until your flight path encompasses your city. Then spiral out further to the urban-rural divide. What do you see? You probably see old hay ground being developed into suburbs. You may even live in one of those new homes on the outskirt of your town surrounded by crop fields. Nowhere is this more striking than in my home state of Montana! Land prices have skyrocketed as city businesses released floods of their employees to work remote, and a lot of them came here to live the dream. Let us now imagine for a moment, if every one of the 3,006 counties in the US lost an average of 100 acres per year to other land use (i.e. homes and businesses, parks and recreation, roads), then that's 300,600 acres lost that could have been hay ground. If all of those acres could have produced an average of 2 ton per year, then we are losing 601,200 tons per year of potential hay that could have fed 150,300 horses for a year. Think about an equestrian friend or acquaintance that recently moved out of the city (maybe due to COVID remote work), bought some property and are now haying it...yea that's what I thought...nobody comes to mind.
3. Burn Out from Farmers: I'm not going to belabor this point too much, because it's described in The Ravalli Republic article mentioned above. However, this is a very serious problem for horse owners. The cost of farming hay is SO enormously expensive, so enormously stressful being at the whim of weather, and SO labor intensive that many farmers are saying "to hell with it"!
4. Land as a Scarce Resource: Even when farm land stays farm land, there are often competing purposes for that farm land. Most U.S. farmers are also producing something else; cattle, corn, soybeans, garlic, canola, wheat, vegetables, ect. Farmers have to decide each year how best to allocate their scarce land resources (more so as leases fall away), and they will choose the crop with the highest return. So, hay ground is even more scarce than we thought.
The solutions to these problematic hay prices are more ethereal than concrete, but I'll throw out some ideas. I've been pondering the horse hay dilemma for nearly a decade, and I've come to conclude that communication between the forage and equine industries is fundamentally broken. The Low Carb Horse Hay Project was created to bridge this communication gap, but the idea has not caught on. It is really, really hard for horse owners to understand their hay choices, because a) less than 1% of us gets a forage test, b) nutrition education quality is poor, and c) we don't put ourselves in the shoes of our local farmers to understand their motivations, priorities and influences.
1. Get Creative:
Expand your forage options beyond the scope of what you've ALWAYS done. Think about every hay type, cutting and bale size as a tool in your nutrition toolbox- even the many new packaged forage options out there could make sense in the right circumstances. I have so many clients who tell me "I can't feed alfalfa", "I can't feed that, but I'm not sure why", " haylage will kill my horse", "that packaged stuff is too expensive", "complete senior feeds won't work", ect, ect, ect before they truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of each option. At On Course Equine Nutrition, I have the luxury of spending A LOT of time considering forage options for my clients, because I'm not selling them feed or supplement products. More than half the time, the answer to their wildest nutrition goals lies in a forage first decision that requires them to think differently about their options.
2. Know the Value of What You’re Buying:
The first major thing you can do as a horse owner is to shop smarter. Knowledge is power at your feed store, power with your hay distributor, and power over your horse's health. GET A FORAGE ANALYSIS DONE. I do not care if you buy a a new bale from a different stack every day of the week. Do ONE and learn how to interpret it from a source that deeply understands the forage industry.
3. Thank a Farmer: Reach out to your local grower/distributor/feed store and thank them for their tremendous back breaking efforts to make high quality hay available to you. Find out when their birthday is and write them a birthday card (and yes, I do know when my hay grower‘s birthday is!) Do not haggle on price. Show up on time for your pickup. Have your space ready for delivery. Don't be RUDE! Sell a horse before you post about how mad you are about hay prices.
4. Get Involved: Ok, maybe you don't have to volunteer on a board or anything, but find out if your county extension office has a forage specialist! [Most horse owners I talk to do NOT know that their tax dollars pay for their local county extension services.] See if that forage specialist offers any educational opportunities. Find out if your region has a hay growers association. Do they have regular meetings? Maybe you could just sit in on one without saying anything to better understand their challenges. My favorite hay grower group in the world is the Oregon Hay & Forage Association who hosts an annual Hay King Contest each year. I wish every horse owner on the planet could go watch that Hay King Contest process. It's a real hoot!
I feel very, very strongly about this communication gap problem. I'm frankly quite worried that it will only broaden and communication will worsen as land scarcity increases and more horses are produced. I think these hay prices are here to stay, so be prepared.
If you enjoyed this article by Natalie Sullivan, nutritionist at On Course Equine Nutrition, you might also like “Equine Economics: What does it cost to Feed Horses These Days”.
OCEN Community Members, Farm Plan Members, and Veterinary Members can access all three of these Low Carb Horse Hay Project videos under Member Resources page. Not a member? Join Today by clicking HERE.
American Horse Council. 2020. US Horse Population- Statistics. Accessed January 31st, 2022 from https://www.horsecouncil.org/press-releases/us-horse-population-statistics/#:~:text=The%20Food%20and%20Drug%20Administration,horse%20population%20at%203.8%20million.
The New York Times. 2022. Who do you want controlling your food source. Accessed January 31, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/28/podcasts/the-daily/beef-prices-cattle-ranchers.html.
The United States Department of Agriculture. 2021. United States cattle inventory down slightly. Accessed January 31, 2022 from https://manage.wix.com/dashboard/b24b8711-226e-44b1-90a1-5a455203b1f1/blog/61f7eedbf5cb7d7c06c75b3a/edit.
The Ravalli Republic. 2022. Bitterroot hay producers face a myriad of challenges. Accessed January 31st, 2022 from https://ravallirepublic.com/news/local/bitterroot-hay-producers-face-myriad-of-challenges/article_110e42a9-1633-5ee0-a482-e5f0ff32345f.html.