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.
How likely it is we’ll be harvesting hay this weekend
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?
Can you settle an argument here for me? I am from England, and myself and some friends are constantly fighting about wether or not Americans soak hay for their horses. Now, im aware that it all depends what is going on with the particular horse, but in your opinion, what is the general thoughts on soaking hay there? Many thanks, Brett.
Thanks for writing, Brett. I can’t speak for the average American horse owner but where I live in East Tennessee I don’t know anyone who soaks their hay and it’s not something I see as a regular conversation topic. From your question I take it in England that is common practice.
I have washed hay (sprayed it down with water) to reduce dust on a particularly dusty bale but it’s not something we do regularly at our place. I know some of the performance horse shows use hay steamers like Haygain. A quick check around my horse circles reveals some controversy here as well. On one hand soaking can reduce contaminants and on the other hand it can reduce important vitamins and sugars so supplements are required.
I pose this question to our readers. Do you soak your hay? If so, why and how often? This poll is anonymous.
EDIT: Poll closed 8/29/11. Below are the results (you should see charts below this paragraph). Although we didn’t get many responses (21 total), of those, it looks like most of you don’t soak hay. Of those that do, most are trying to reduce dust/contaminants and accomplish this using a bucket. Interesting info. Thanks to those who participated!
In my last post, I spoke of how quickly our horses are going through hay and the weather hasn’t even turned very cold yet. I spoke with a local large animal veterinarian about this and he mentioned that the weather earlier this year might be to blame. East Tennessee started out the year with a lot of rain. In his estimation, too much rain over a short period of time. What this does, he says, is flush the soil nutrients. So even though the grass grew pretty well this year, the quality of the grasses and resulting hay was relatively poor. Horses and other large animals have a built-in nutrient and mineral detectors that cause them to throttle food consumption to regulate nutrient intake according to what they need. His educated guess was that our horses were eating more because the hay wasn’t as full of nutrients as in previous years. That also seems to explain why our horses LOVE the square bales from last year and don’t seem to consume it as quickly as these newer round bales.
This just reminds me how much there is to know and learn about our horses!
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!
The round hay bale experiment worked wonderfully and if you’ve followed us over the last 4 parts (links below), you know we recommend feeding round hay bales using the horse version of a round bale feeder. Part 5 might be the last but we need to cover this one additional thing. We have four horses and although a single round bale feeder normally works great with four horses, we experienced two issues that made us want to try adding a second.
First, Valentine, our big Tennessee Walking Horse, is low man on the totem pole, despite towering over the other horses. Because he isn’t at all aggressive in defending this low position, the other horses, including our relatively small Appaloosa Romeo, bully him. There are times where they will simply not let him eat. He has a very high metabolism anyway and it’s hard to keep him fed. He always shows a little ribby, despite the amount of feed we make sure he gets. I can’t be standing by the feeder to ensure the other horses let him eat so we needed a way for him to have access to hay when the herd was being mean.
Second, with four horses, a single round bale lasts between 4 days and a week, depending on the amount of fresh grass available. Having a second round bale feeder would potentially double the amount of time needed before we’d have to pull the tractor out for a re-supply. This is much appreciate here in Tennessee because we get a lot of rain. It’s now less likely we’ll have to put out hay during rain.
Our biggest concern with having two feeders was that the horses would just eat more. In the six months it’s been since we bought it, this hasn’t been the case. The second feeder has doubled the time it takes before new bales are needed. We placed the feeders apart by a couple hundred feet, in view of each other but despite this, Valentine still normally prefers to hang out with the herd, even though they bully him. I’m not sure why that is but he has easy access to food. We keep an eye on him to make sure his weight doesn’t drop and he seems content. With a second feeder, our horses enjoy having some options. After all, horses don’t like to stay in one place for too long so this way they can migrate between the two feeders, which probably feels a little more natural to them.
Although I was also initially concerned with hay mold, our horses seem to be eating the hay fast enough and mixing it up enough that mold isn’t growing on the bales after rain. We keep an eye on this too. As you know, mold is bad for horses.
If you have one or two horses, a single round bale hay would be sufficient but if you have a small herd of horses like us and you have some domination issues that keep one of your horses from getting food freely, you might considering have more than one round hay bale feeder.
One of the first things we wanted to or needed to do with our new tractor is to move hay and it’s one of the reasons we used to justify having a tractor. Our round bale experiment was successful and now we feed mostly round hay bales to our horses throughout winter. Until now we’ve been pulling our car hauler full of round bales into our muddy pasture and then pushing a round bale off as needed. Now that we have a four wheel drive tractor, it was time to put it to work. But we needed one more thing: a hay spear. Unfortunately our tractor doesn’t have a quick-disconnect bucket. We could buy a hay spear implement for the arms but it would be a pain to unbolt and remove the bucket each time we needed a bale. While we do plan to convert our arms to use a quick-connect system, it’s a bit of a hassle up front. We’d need to buy a system and then have someone weld a bracket to our bucket. For now, we’ve opted to use a spear that connects to our bucket. We found a nice used setup on Craigslist that attaches in a way that spreads the load across a good portion of the bucket to minimize bending and yesterday we got to test it out. I’ll need some practice but it went well (see pic). At 800 or so pounds, having a bale up high like that makes the tractor a little unsteady. I left the bush hog on the rear for counterweight and lowered the bale when I cleared my trailer.
Once we have it down, I think the process will be smoother using a tractor. Do you have any experiences (good or bad) with a clip-on hay spear?
Been a little while since we talked about this but I have an update. Since we last wrote about our round bale experiment in February 2007 (yikes – over two years ago!), we bought a round bale feeder with cutouts for horses. We were told we could just buy the cow version but we liked how the horse version seemed to do a better job of keeping the horses separated and that’s important when four horses are eating off of the same bale. Whoever suggested to us that the round bale feeder would save us money in hay was absolutely right. After about a year I can honestly say this thing has probably paid for itself. The old method was to drop a round bale out in the pasture to let the horses feed freely on it. But they ended up walking and pooping all over the hay and of course they wanted nothing to do with it then. We’d lose about 20% of every bale this way. With the round bale feeder we lose almost nothing. I believe we paid about $100 for the galvanized version which came in three pieces we needed to bolt together. It’s surprisingly light, though it’s size makes it a little hard to maneuver. We usually flip it on it’s side and roll it to the next location (it’s muddy in the photo above because we rolled it through the mud) and then flop it down onto it’s legs over a round bale. I can do it myself but prefer having the help of another person.
As you know, we don’t have a tractor so moving round bales has been a challenge. What seems to be working for us it to load up our flat car-hauler trailer with four round bales and then as needed we back the trailer into the pasture and roll one off by hand. Surprisingly I can move one myself but I don’t have complete control because there is a bit of elevation where we feed hay. What’s worse, though, is when we need to drop a new round bale after it’s been raining. Our clay is slippery when wet. Backing a heavy car hauler and a heavy truck over wet clay is a great way to get stuck. And that’s just what happened last week. Understand that our truck is four wheel drive and supercharged but there was no moving that trailer once it was stuck in the mud. Fortunately for us, there were no more bales on the trailer so we just disconnected and left it there. I barely got out of there in the truck. So that’s our big challenge right now with this method of round bale delivery. What we really need is a 4×4 tractor. I’ve had lots of people tell me I don’t need 4 wheel drive on a tractor but a tractor I can only use when it hasn’t rained in the past 3 days is of little use. We get 70 or so inches of rain a year here.
In summary, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND a round bale feeder!