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.
Although I started writing this post a year ago, it’s just as relevant today. It doesn’t seem like things have improved much with the economy since then and in many ways, things have become worse. The effects of this current recession are widespread when it comes to horses. I’m no expert and I don’t run an equine-related business for a living but the evidence is all around me and is very noticeable.
In the news
The whole idea for this post came as a result of an article I saw on the Arizona Republic’s website AZCentral about Tempe, Arizona’s horse-mounted police patrol possibly being cut or eliminated to save money. Arizona is in a world of hurt this time around and they’re cutting all over. But it was particularly sad for me to see this historical use of horses (they’ve been doing it 35 years now) be shut down.
I’m a subscriber to several news feeds and I see news articles almost every day from all over the U.S. about horses being neglected, malnourished and sometimes rescued. Even Time magazine did an article on “An Epidemic of Abandoned Horses“. A couple of other recent examples:
At a local horse and tack auction, horses are regularly brought in to sell that have been underfed. Someone typically rescues them from a family who can no longer afford to feed them and tries to sell the horse to someone who can. Some of these are fine looking horses, except for being thin. We often hear stories about horses being found and no one claiming them. Sometimes at livestock auctions, farmers return to their cow trailers to find a horse or two tied to their trailer with a note saying someone can’t take care of them anymore. How sad.
Horse sales are way down locally and prices have dropped dramatically for all but the best trained and most in-demand horses. Good barrel horses can still command $5k-$10k but regular old trail horses and horses without much training routinely sell for $25 to $50 (more for special colors, such as solid white). We hope these horses go to good homes but worry than some won’t. Some probably end up in Canadian or Mexican slaughter houses.
In part 2, I’m planning to bring up how the poor economy has changed the market for horse products and services such as feed, tack and fencing.
How about you? Has the economy changed the way you purchase products or services for your horses? Have you seen evidence of a higher rate of neglect and abandonment in your area?
A few years ago we lived in Arizona during the height of the big real estate boom. We saw the price of houses in our neighborhood jump from $150k to over $300k and the desert all around Phoenix developed. It seemed even the least attractive homes in the worst neighborhoods were suddenly very expensive. I couldn’t figure out where all the money was coming from. How could people making $40k a year afford a $300k house in need of a new roof? Years later we have our answer and the “housing crisis” continues. I feel bad for those who had to pay twice what homes were worth, only to have their mortgage payments skyrocket and the value of their houses plummet. But I hadn’t even considered the impact this might have on horses in Arizona until I read an article a few days ago on azcentral.com (the website of the Arizona Republic newspaper).
Though I’m not a fan of E.J. Montini’s controversial political views, his column post “Abandoning houses, horses and history” was well written and eye-opening. Mr. Montini interviewed Holly Marino of the non-profit Horse Rescue of North Scottsdale and discovered that people in the Phoenix area are dropping off and abandoning their horses at an increasing rate. When people can’t pay their mortgages, they can’t pay to feed or board horses. The rescue went from having around a dozen horses to having 60…SIXTY. I know what it costs to feed and maintain three horses but I can’t imagine sixty. They’re struggling to find a way to pay the expenses while looking for good homes for the horses.
The impact of the huge increase in bankruptcies and foreclosures in Arizona extends beyond people to their pets, including horses. I’ll guess it’s a problem in other previously-hot housing markets like Southern California and Florida. It’s sad for the horses and sad for the people, many of whom are probably as close to their horses as we are to ours.
I’ll be traveling to Arizona in the next few months and will try to stop by the Horse Rescue of North Scottsdale to talk with Ms. Marino about it some more.
If you’re close by and would like to help, visit their website (they have a very nice website) for more information. They’re in need of blankets, hay, feed, money and more. Even a small donation of $10 can buy a bag of feed. If you’re not close by, consider helping out your local horse rescue. The housing crisis is impacting communities around the U.S. Most rescues are non-profit and in need of financial and/or physical help.
I just got caught up on our year-to-date horse expense list and chart. 2007 is shaping up to be more expensive for us as horse owners. It looks like the biggest reason for that is because we’re just coming off of the cold months and winter is definitely more expensive for maintaining horses. Last years expense list started in summer. Now that the grass is growing and our horses are spending less time in the barn, our expenses are going down. If it wasn’t for farrier expense in April, our monthly total would have been only $74. But horses (usually) need shoeing!
Here are some expense changes implemented recently:
- We find ourselves using more wood pellets these days, as it makes our job cleaning stalls each day much easier.
- We got some good deals on more expensive feed from Purina and now we’re hooked. We really like Omolene and Strategy. I think we’ll stick with Strategy for now, which sells for about $3 more per bag than local feed-store sweet oats. We’ll also be cutting back slightly on the amount of feed we use.
- We’ll start buying fly parasites again this month (May). We tried them last year and they worked. Today I noticed TONS of flies in the barn. We should have ordered the parasites a little earlier.
On an administrative note, the horse expense list page is looking cluttered to me so I’ll be redesigning it. The information is good, it’s just getting hard to read.
Here’s the updated graph:
Our 11 month average is $157.
I just updated our horse expense list through October 2006 and pulled together this quick, if un-sexy line chart showing the trend. That big blip in the middle is due to annual vaccinations (I told the horses it hurt me more than it hurt them). With only two more months to go to wrap up 2006 expenses, it’s becoming clear to me that my earlier assertion about horses not costing that much may have been premature. Well, relative to say, a child, they’re not expensive. But relative to a dog, cat or lawn ornament, they are indeed expensive. So if you’re tight on cash and want a nice pet, a dog or cat is much cheaper. If you want a nice lawn or pasture ornament, consider pink flamingos, though I heard that the company that makes them just stopped production so you better snap them up at a yard sale before they move to “collector” status. If you really really like horses and have no qualms about putting off a car payment to buy feed, a horse is right for you and you should run out this weekend and buy the prettiest one you can find. Just kidding about that last part but we all know you’ve thought about it.