ext time you throw a flake of hay to your horse, think about where it comes from. Farmers at the mercy of the weather work tirelessly to seed, grow, and harvest that hay. While we often think about drought being a farmer’s worst nightmare, the opposite has been recently true. Massive storms have soaked parts of the United States over the last year and precious hay supplies are running low in much of the country. How will farmers recover? Can the harvests handle another wet year? And what will that mean for you and your horse?
No matter the season or year, weather can be unpredictable on crop yields and it’s an inevitable force farmers must take into account when planning their harvest, but Mother Nature has been especially unfriendly of late.
“About a year ago there were some pretty good droughts and wildfires that took a lot of the surplus hay. This past year we had a kind of medium growing season, yields were good but not excellent, and we had a tremendously hard winter. All of that has made this season a difficult one for hay,” explains Chris Meduna, whose 3,000-acre family farm in Colon, Nebraska relies on healthy crops and livestock.
Then, in March this year, at least one million acres of farmland in the Midwest were flooded, devastating more than nine major grain-producing states. Those floods arrived just weeks before planting season, leaving farmland underwater, soil damaged, and bales of hay literally washed away.
What does that mean for your horses? “It’s supply and demand and right now it’s not much supply and a whole lot of demand,” says Sean McCashin of Cana Land & Farm Company in Mocksville, North Carolina, which specializes in the production of hay, alfala, and orchard grass for horses.
On the East Coast, Hurricane Florence flooded farmlands in the eastern parts of North Carolina last fall, damaging crops and killing livestock. Sean says his family’s farm was west of the area most severely affected by Hurricane Florence, but with record rainfall, the crops were damaged due to the lack of dry weather, which is required to cut and cure hay in the field. Farmers in his area that usually source hay from eastern parts of North Carolina have been out of luck because of the hurricane. Due to the low supply, hay is in high demand.
"This was felt on a very wide scale ..."
“There’s no carryover for the 2019 hay crop; supplies are very thin,“ Sean says. “We feel the repercussions; we produce hay and we broker hay from all over. We’ve sold more hay this year than ever because it’s running short, and we’ve had to go farther to source hay because our regular suppliers couldn’t keep up with what we were selling. We’ve been shipping out of Canada, and even there they’re running short.”
Chris says, “This was felt on a very wide scale — maybe certain areas more than others, but I deal with a couple hay brokers down in Georgia and they deal with suppliers all over the U.S., and they’re running into major problems trying to find hay. I’ve worked with people in Iowa trying to truck hay in, but when you start trucking it gets very expensive.”
As a result of the shortage and added expense of shipping hay into an area, the cost of hay has subsequently increased. In North Carolina, hay currently costs $10 to $15 (up from $7 to $9 in a normal year) for a bale for grass hay, and a little more for alfalfa, with the price at feed stores slightly higher than directly off the farm. Chris has seen a $2 to $3 per bale increase in grass hay in his area of the country. (Think of that the next time you sneak an extra flake from the boarding barn’s hay storage.)
“Inventory is getting smaller, and people are pecking away at it,” Sean says. “People need hay and if I can find it, they seem to be willing to accept the price. I guess they can’t find it anywhere else; everyone around is having the same issues.”
While $15 a bale is not the ‘new normal,’ prices most likely won’t decrease in the immediate future. “Whether you should stock up depends on how many horses you need to feed. If you can grin and bear the higher prices, as more hay is made, we expect the price to go down,” Sean says.
“It’s gonna be tough to find hay in the upcoming year,” Chris says. “If you find an opportunity where the price is right or you have a supplier willing to part with some bales, even if it’s more than you’re used to paying, jump on the opportunity to lock in your hay.”
That’s exactly what professional dressage trainer Reese Koffler-Stanfield did. She has up to 16 horses in her Lexington, Kentucky-based, Maplecrest Farm, and has experienced the panic of not being able to find hay. She wasn’t going to get caught out like that again. Seeing the writing on the wall last fall, she stocked up early.
Reese buys hay from a local farmer and is confident not only in the quality of the hay she is purchasing, but her established relationship means that she has priority when she needs hay. “She called and told me she had a little stash of extra hay. She’s supplied my hay for nine years; the big stores won’t call you, but your local farmer will. She needs to clean out her hay loft and I have to fill mine. She is also keeping the usual prices for me; again, I have a good relationship with her.”
Reese received a load of hay in January, right before she closed up her Kentucky barn for winter. She took a supply with her to Florida, which ran out after two months, and the hay she bought in Wellington was priced at a premium. “You don’t get anything good for under $17 or $18 a bale, and that’s so painful!” But when she returned home after the winter season, her barn was fully stocked.
While the hay situation is a challenge right now, there is no need to panic. “If the weather works with us then it should turn out to be a good crop year,” Chris says. But as horse owners, a little attention and planning goes a long way.
So should everyone run out and fill their hay storage? “That’s the million dollar question,” Sean says. “If prices go up for some reason, if you buy a barn full now you’ll look like a genius, but if prices go down you’ll kick yourself.”
Have you felt the effects of higher priced or hard-to-find hay?
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Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.