Sometimes your best source of information is your horse friends. One of ours found a new local supplier and passed on the lead to us. I went over, bought a few bales and the horses loved it. His prices are fixed, even when supply is low and demand is high. The man who runs the farm said he’s concentrating on developing long term business, not trying to make a quick buck. He is also willing to hold onto hay for us if we pre-buy. He had a couple hundred bales a few weeks ago and thought it would last months but I called him this week and discovered that his regular customers got spooked by the low supplies elsewhere and have been buying up all of his remaining hay. He had about 20 small round bales available and didn’t expect to sell hay much longer this season. That’s when I realized that even though I didn’t really want to spend $500 from this paycheck on hay, this may be our only choice. And that’s what owning horses is like! I have a tip on someone else who may have some but we’re running out of time. Thankfully we have almost all we need to last until the first cutting. I think we can get by with 15 more round bales. Now I just need to find them.
I 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.
Happiness is a yard full of hay. About this time of year (late winter), we’re still a little nervous about our hay supply but things are starting to look up. It’s March and the grass isn’t growing yet but we expect the first harvest will likely be in late May if the rain is average. The hay barns are getting empty and just about everyone we know is looking around for more. In some years this has driven the late winter prices up but since the harvest was exceptional last year, this winter the prices have been steady. We pay about $30 for an 800 to 900 pound round bale of good horse hay. During the winter we use about 5 round bales a month for three horses and a mule. That translates into $150 a month for feed, which isn’t bad for four equines.
As luck would have it, we recently ran out of round bales in the middle of bad weather. We knew we were running low but we were hoping for a few sunny days to dry out the muddy pasture so the tractor didn’t tear up the ground. The nice weather never came so one cold and yucky day we started making calls and found out our main supplier was also out. Fortunately he had planned to truck some more in from one of his storage barns far away but we had to wait a few days. When this happens we feed our horses square bales from our hay loft but our supply of those is almost gone as well. We thought we’d have to buy an emergency bale from the feed store but their prices run much higher than we normally pay and they don’t always have inventory. Thankfully we had just enough square bales to hold us over and our main supplier even offered to deliver the hay to our barn, saving us a trip to his place with a truck and a trailer. We ended up buying his entire trailer load – 17 big round bales, saving him from having to unload them at his barn and saving us from having to buy hay again for months. We hope to not need more hay until after the first harvest.
It was a tight squeeze. We fed one bale to some very happy horses, put four on our trailer (normally it fits seven but these are much bigger round bales), a couple behind the trailer, a few in Romeo’s old open stall and four in front of the barn covered with a big tarp.
We’ve said this before but if you’re thinking about having horses of your own, give some thought to year round hay supply. Don’t count on your supplier always having hay the day you need it and plan for shortages and bad weather. For some reason we always have to feed new round bales when the weather is the worst or we’re sick or busy, etc. It’s bad enough to be out in it but it’s worse if you have to factor in loading up a trailer and driving around to buy some in bad weather. Think about where you can store a good sized load and arrange for delivery or pickup well before you’ll absolutely need it. At the very least, have some large tarps handy and a way to secure them to protect those bales from moisture (more on that in another post). Also, if a hay harvest is good, it’s great to be able to buy a big load at a discount. In some years a good first harvest was followed by awful drought. Buying cheap in the spring saved us a load of money later in the summer when the drought forced prices up.
Even though I wrote a pretty big check for that many bales, I love having the peace of mind knowing I don’t have to worry about hay for the next 2-3 months and that is well worth it.
Tomorrow is supposed to be the hottest day of the year so far and you know what that means? Time to harvest hay. You’ve probably read about our hay harvesting escapades before. The overwhelming theme is how hot it is when we’re doing it. You can pretty much pick the hottest, most humid and miserable day of the year and that’s when the hay is coming in. Here’s a handy chart you can use to predict the likelihood of the hay being ready based on temperature:
I’m speaking specifically of square bales. We don’t use a lot of them this time of year but they’re a staple in winter when the horses spend more time inside the barn. Our own barn can only hold about 80 bales but there is a barn in the hay field that can probably hold 1,000 or more. That’s where we’ll be tomorrow, pulling square bales from the field into a hay wagon and then transferring them to a loft in the big barn. There we’ll battle stifling heat, wasps, dive-bombing barn swallows and the occasional snake to store up hay for the winter. It’s worth it. We have a deal with our provider that gives us discounted pricing in exchange for help harvesting. Some icy cold winter day we’ll look back in envy of this warm day I dread as I type this.
I think I’m recycling this video but just in case you don’t know what square bale harvesting looks like, here’s a short video from a few years ago.
Do you help harvest hay where you live? Does this chart relate to your experience as well?
I opened the back door to our house this morning to let the dogs out and the first thing I see is our horse Cash staring at me as if to say “hey human, our hay feeders are empty.” Nearby, Valentine and Moonshine echo the sentiment with looks of sadness. Romeo is out of sight, probably looking for ways to escape to find more food. Since Saturday, five and a half days ago, our four horses have mostly consumed 1,500 pounds of hay. That’s about 60-70 pounds of hay per horse per day, just about double what they ate during the summer. I say “mostly” because the quality of one of the bales must not have been entirely up to their high standards, as part of it was pulled out and stomped into the ground. It’s a horse thing and I got the message. Even so, they did eat most of it and are now hungry…again.
It stands to reason that hay consumption increases when the weather turns cold. For one thing, there is less green grass. There wasn’t much in our pasture to begin with but now there is even less. When they’re not foraging for fresh grass, our horses are usually standing at a hay feeder munching grass all day. They spend more time there these days. Eating hay also generates internal heat so as the weather turns cold (down into the 30’s Fahrenheit last night), their body heaters required fuel.
At this rate of consumption they’ll probably go through almost 11 full round bales of hay per month. At $25 per round bale, that’s…good grief…$275 a month. In addition to daily grain. Horses are expensive!
I guess I should have expected it because it seems just about every year our vacation is interrupted by a phone call from a concerned neighbor about our horses roaming the streets. This one was no exception. We were 400 miles away in Savannah, GA and the phone rings. Luckily our backup system worked this time. The last time this happened, all of our horse contacts were away also.
Now you might think that our fence is pretty crappy after reading our posts about fence breaches but in truth it’s a good fence, a mixture of a three board wood fence (double boarded on the top layer) with barbed wire. The barbed wire isn’t horse-friendly so we’re replacing it over time but normally it works to keep animals inside pasture and is very common where we live in east Tennessee.
The first break was just Romeo, our small Appaloosa. A neighbor called to inform us he was down the road in an open pasture by himself. A horse friend led him home and Mikki’s dad patched where we thought he got out. Romeo is a barrel horse, flexy and nimble. There was one strand of barbed wire that was spread a little far so he patched it up very well. The next day, another call comes in telling us that Romeo is walking down the highway between two open pastures. Ack! After being led to the barn, a quick check revealed the previous patch job was still intact but a more thorough perimeter sweep identified that a tree had fallen way out back in a place that was difficult for humans to detect. Romeo simply stepped over the fence and went on his merry way. Why the other 3 horses didn’t follow, we don’t know. Mikki’s dad got a crash course in barbed wire fence repair with the help of a horse friend and everything was fine. Until tonight.
We waited a little late to feed the horses tonight. As I looked up at the fence next to the barn, I stopped in my tracks as I saw the carnage. Fence was everywhere. With my flashlight, I pointed in the direction I thought the horses would have gone and saw lots of shiny eyes reflecting the light. They were eating grass from my neighbor’s lush green lawn. It wasn’t hard to get them to return to the barn since it was feeding time but darn if they didn’t have to spend a few of the hottest days this summer in the barn while we bought wood and planned our next move.
The next day I was able to see what they had done and get a picture. Two 4×4 posts were snapped as well as some of the fence boards. This is the area we call the peninsula and it’s a problem spot in our pasture. Our horses congregate here and when a fight breaks out, there aren’t many options for escape. I think this is likely what happened versus the horses leaning against the fence for greener grass. This break seems like it was pretty violent.
We’ve decided to move the fence to eliminate this peninsula and to make way for our manure composting system. This is now much higher on our priority list.
By the way, it’s a good idea to always have some emergency repair supplies around. These kinds of things almost always happen to us at night or on a Sunday when the lumber yards are closed.
Many of you have followed the Our First Horse blog for the more than four years we’ve been around. You’ve read about us starting with our first horse (Valentine), purchasing our second horse (Moonshine) soon after and later our third and fourth horses (Romeo and Cash). We started out as total newbies with a nice horse barn and a decent fenced property and gradually, slowly we gained knowledge and experience. And I’d like to think along that way we gained wisdom, as well. It’s a piece of that wisdom I’d like to share with you today.
Someone once said that hindsight is 20/20 and this we have all proven in our lives. After more than four years of horse ownership, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve made some poor decisions, especially early on. I love all of our horses and have no interest in selling any of them. We’re emotionally attached to them now. But even though we can ride any ride-able horse and even though we know how to take care of them, we’re in a way still beginners, unskilled and without a lot of time. I had an epiphany recently. For people like us who don’t have much time but love horses enough that they want their own, it’s better to buy a well-trained, excellent horse right in the beginning. What we should have done was spend $5,000-$10,000 each on two already-trained, good horses. There, I said it. Our horses are great but they need a lot of training. The trouble is, I need training, too, and I don’t have a lot of time for me to learn, become an expert and then train my horses.
So if I could do it all over again, I’d start out with better trained horses. I’m certainly not giving up on our horses and we will invest time and money into training them. But there are days I wish I could just saddle up any of them and head off on the trails (we can mostly do this with Romeo). So my advice to you if you’re a beginner looking for your first horse – save your money and invest in lessons for you (critical) and a well-trained horse.
For those of you with horses, do you agree/disagree? What would you do differently in hindsight?