A potentially costly mistake

Hay wagon frostI have made a classic horse owner mistake and it’s probably going to cost us money. You’d think after 8 years I would have learned but apparently I have some learning to do still. I want to blame the system but the truth is I knew it was this way and should have adapted. Allow me to explain.

We write a lot about hay. Sometimes I hesitate, wondering if anyone is interested but buying and feeding hay is such a huge part of horse ownership and the risks and challenges shouldn’t be overlooked. Our mission is to not only document our experience for ourselves but to also hopefully save some of you from the hassles we’ve experienced.

As much as possible, we’ve always tried to purchase hay in bulk. It’s sometimes less expensive that way and having lots of bales around saves us from frequently traveling back and forth to a supplier. As winter approaches, we load up as much as we can but can generally only store about fifteen 4×5 round bales, and even then we end up covering them with tarps, which the least effective protection from the weather that we’ve tried (tarps rot easily, act like parachutes in the wind and don’t protect the bottom). We feed about one of these round bales every 4 days in the winter, or about 7 bales a month depending on the quality. And hay quality can vary greatly. For example, this past year we found a great deal on year old hay towards the end of summer. Although it was horse hay, we knew it wasn’t top notch but thought it would supplement the end of year forage. Our horses ended up eating half of each bale, going through it twice as fast as we expected. Bale density varies, too. Bales from some suppliers aren’t wound as tightly so they look the same size but contain less hay. In my experience, the variance can be 20-30%.

For the last month, I’ve counted on a local supplier who has consistently provided high quality, tightly wound hay. The price went up a little this year but the hay density also seemed to go up so it seemed like a wash. He has lots of hay storage, including some in other counties so sometimes it required that we wait a few days while he moved around stock. But every time I called it seemed like he was doing me a favor by selling me some of his hay, despite the fact that he assured me earlier in the year that he’s in the business of selling hay. He has cows, though, and they are understandably his highest priority. And then I heard from a horse friend who is also his customer that this supplier is no longer selling hay this season, that he feels he is probably going to need all of his remaining supply for his cows. I can’t help but be a little nervous, with almost five months left until the first harvest of the hay season (typically towards the end of May).

And so, with two round bales in our barn, I set off to find a new supplier. My first stop was a good bet but I knew they’d be expensive: my local feed store. I understand how their model works. They purchase a set amount from a supplier for a wholesale rate and then mark it up to make a profit. Their hay is stored indoors and covered space costs money. That plus demand is pretty high at the feed store, arguably the most organized of the feed suppliers in the region. The feed store is like a grocery store for animal feed, where you show up, browse the aisles, make a selection and go home with it. Most other suppliers work out of their farms and while usually less expensive, have unpredictable supplies, don’t always answer their phones and require appointments for pickup. As I pulled into the driveway of our local feed store, they just happened to be receiving a delivery of round bales. The price was reasonable – $35 for a 4×4 round bale. I quickly bought two and 30 square bales for $5 each. That covered me for another week or so plus days when snow, ice or cold rain will require our herd to take shelter in the barn.

So now I’m on the hunt for 5 months worth of hay – about 38 round bales. I can’t count on the feed store, or probably anyone else, to have hay ready for pickup at any time for the next 5 months and the price will most certainly go up. One year towards the end of winter I inquired about the price of round bales while picking up some oats and was quoted a price of $50. Other times they’ve been completed sold out for months. My lack of planning and storage might prove costly this year. I wish I could enter a contract with a supplier for a guaranteed amount of hay. I know how many bales I need a year and could even pay some up front. But that’s not how the hay business works around here.

So if you’re thinking of having a horse or horses, strongly consider a hay strategy well before winter.

Our plan for this year is to find a way to build some hay storage. Maybe recycled telephone poles, steel roof trusses and a metal roof. Something inexpensive, yet spacious and durable. We’ll see how things go.

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