Last year, Texas sizzled under hot, cloudless skies; hay fields and pastures shriveled. The most severe one-year drought on record wreaked havoc on anyone or anything that relied on normally bountiful supplies of grass and hay in the Lone Star State.
Texas wasn't the only state to suffer a shortage. Volatile weather patterns hampered other regions' hay production. With such patterns seeming to be the new norm, hay crises could crop up more frequently around the country.
To help you ride out a hay shortage, should you ever face one, we talked to three horse people who dealt with the Texas shortage from different perspectives: Barbara Deneve, an amateur rider who keeps two horses at her home in Richmond, Texas; John Howard, an award-winning hay grower in Bellville, Texas; and Don Brehm, owner of a feed store, Brehm's Feed Company, as well as a boarding facility, in Richmond, Texas. Their insights could help you keep a hay crisis at bay.
Put Together a Co-Op
One thing all our survivors agreed on was that the earlier in the growing season (late spring) you lineup your hay source, the better the odds of getting hay. In 2011, competition for Texas hay (and beyond) morphed from intense to rabid, and it only got tougher and costlier as the year dragged on.
Barbara ("Barb") Deneve didn't get an early start.
"I didn't bring my horse home from my trainer's barn until August of that year. So I was already behind when I started looking for hay sources," she recalls.
"I was used to buying around 10 or so bales at a time from local feed stores, because I lack storage. But they were charging $10 to $15 a bale for coastal Bermuda?if they had it?and there was a five-bale limit due to the shortage. I used to pay $7 to $8 a bale.
"Plus, some of it was of awful quality; my horses wouldn't eat it. And every shipment a feed store got in was different, which can really upset a horse"s digestive system. It soon became clear I"d have to find my own out-of-state source if I wanted good, consistent-quality coastal hay, which is the basis for my feeding program."
So Barb turned to the Internet and began searching for anyone selling hay. But her storage issue loomed. As did an early lesson in her online hay-shopping experience: You have to order by the truckload if you buy from out of state. "There's a minimum of 500 bales per rig for the seller to truck it in," Barb says.
That's when she started calling horse-owning friends.
"I found two who were willing to go in with me on a truckload of hay," she says. "One of my friends agreed to take 240 bales, and the other agreed to between 250 and 300. I made sure they understood we'd have to pay upfront; growers won't even load a rig unless they're paid in advance?and this load would require a five-figure cashier's check." (More about costs in a minute.)
"I cleaned out a 12-foot-by-12-foot stall in my barn that had been used for storage, so I could bring in 80 bales, which would last me until the 2012 growing season."
The fledgling co-op's biggest fear? Buying hay sight unseen.
"Since you pay first," explains Barb, "you're stuck with whatever hay is delivered. It's truly buyer beware."
So Barb narrowed her search to states in which she knew horse people who would go check out the hay source for her. And, she avoided hay brokers, choosing to buy directly from the grower, instead.
"Brokers distribute hay for multiple growers, so you don't know where it's coming from or what the quality is," says Barb. "I wanted consistent, high-quality hay from a single source that I could have someone check out."
She soon learned that most of the coastal hay in the Midwest had been snapped up, and that regions in the Northeast had their own shortage, due, ironically, to too much moisture.
It took weeks to finally find a source.
"There was nothing sophisticated about my search," Barb recalls. "I just called every friend and trainer I knew, looking for sources, and spent hours online after work, finding and calling growers."
As luck would have it, she found one near Orlando, Florida, who was advertising quality coastal hay online. He was located about two hours from her daughter Lauren, who works and goes to school in Tampa. Lauren, and experienced horsewoman, drove to the grower to evaluate the hay, and bought some sample bales for her horses to try. They gave the hay a "thumbs-up."
Barb placed her co-op's order. Fortunately, this grower had a relationship with a trucking company; some don't, meaning the buyer has to arrange shipping. (Shipping at that time ran from $1.35 to $1.60 a mile, depending on the load and truck size.)
Even with having to import hay from Florida to Texas, Barb and her hay-buying partners ended up spending less per bale than what they'd paid to local feed stores...and got better-quality hay.
"Per bale, trucked here, we paid $9.30," Barb says. "It would have been $6.50 a bale out of the field in Florida. The rest was trucking costs. It's good hay, and our horses love it. Now I have a great source if we ever go through another bad hay year here. That gives me peace of mind."
Always Be Prepared
"Get all the hay you'll need for a year, as early in the year as you can," advises John. (For how to calculate how much you'll need, see "What's a Year's Worth of Hay?" on page 3.) "That means you'll need two things: Money and storage. But having a year's worth of hay removes all the ?what ifs' that go with a hay shortage. And it ensures that you'll get consistent quality."
To people who balk at writing a check for a year's worth of hay, John has this to say.
"You're going to pay the same amount of money over the course of a year for your hay, or more, if prices go up. Plus, some growers may give a per-bale discount if you buy a large enough quantity. Think of it as buying a case of Coke rather than a can at a time."
If you don't have storage, create some, he suggests.
"Rent or buy an 8-foot-by-20-foot ocean shipping container, also known as a marine cargo container," he advises. "It can hold 200 bales. Containers are waterproof and rodent proof, and they keep your hay fully enclosed and protected. They're ideal for hay storage. I've been recommending them for years. Plus, you keep your hay away from the barn, reducing fire danger.
"Containers aren't very pretty to look at," he acknowledges, "but they're practical, and you can put them anywhere on your place."
Plan to spend about $1,500 to $2,000 to buy one. A larger size, 8-feet-by-40- feet, can hold 400 bales. (To find a container, search "shipping containers for sale" online. Numerous sites sell them.) Many barn-building companies also sell portable or permanent hay-storage units. (Search "hay storage buildings" online.)
Some growers may store your hay for you. Or ask a friend who has storage space if you can keep your hay at her place. John also suggests doing what Barb did, and buying a large load to split between two or three people. Plus, he says, getting more than a year's worth isn't a bad idea.
"Hay will last more than one year if it's kept dry," he maintains. "The color on the outside may yellow if it's exposed to sunlight, but the inside will still be green. I know ranchers who try to keep two years' worth of hay on hand, in case of a drought."
John, who grows coastal Bermuda, also suggested stepping out of your comfort zone, or being prepared to, in the case of a hay crisis.
"2011 was the strangest year I've ever seen, weather-wise. People called me begging for hay. In 20 years of growing it, that was the first time I couldn't deliver to my customers. I felt terrible for them," he said. "I hope I never see a year like that again.
"I suggested they start feeding alfalfa, because even during the worst of the shortage, you could find good-quality alfalfa." (Tip: Consult with your veterinarian when making a change to your horse's diet, to be sure the ration remains balanced. Make any dietary changes gradual, to help avoid digestive upset.)
As with other key players in your horse life, such as your veterinarian and farrier, John suggests that you establish a relationship with a good hay source. Then maintain that relationship.
"In a year like 2011, when hay yields are way down, a grower is going to take care of his loyal customers first," he says. "That's just business. But even good customers may not get all they need. When I had horses, even as a grower, I always had a backup plan: I had a quality, wholesale alfalfa grower lined up in New Mexico, just in case we had a dry year here in Texas."
His final word: "I've been growing hay a long time, but learned more last year about it than ever. One thing I learned: You can't grow anything without rain. Irrigation systems, which I have, only work as a supplement to rain. I kept trying to produce hay, but man, that was one tough year. Mother Nature can kick your butt."
Think Outside the Box
To Don, riding out the hay shortage didn't have to be as stressful as people made it. "There are so many alternatives to baled hay out there," he states. "But people around here are used to throwing two or three flakes of coastal hay to their horses. They didn't want to think outside the box."
As an equine nutritionist, feed-store owner, and boarding-barn operator, Don tried to educate his clients about hay alternatives during the crisis, and he used alternate feeds extensively at his own barn.
"I suggested that my customers first switch to a high-fiber pelleted feed, one that has 18- to 22-percent fiber," he says. "That way, you have better control over the quality of fiber your horse is getting than you do if you're buying a few bales of coastal at a time.
"I then suggested they add alfalfa pellets to their horses' ration, as an additional form of fiber," he added. "Or, add alfalfa cubes or baled alfalfa, instead. But people would balk at the idea of feeding alfalfa, which I don't understand. There's no reason a horse can't eat it unless he's allergic to it. You just feed less of it. Your horse will pee out the protein he doesn't need.
"All of those options were readily available during the hay shortage. And the packaged roughage products all cost about the same, per pound, as a bale of coastal," he explains. "The upside is they give you quality control and consistency. The fact is that people were way over-paying for coastal that was less-than-mediocre. So these packaged sources were a better value, money-wise and nutrition-wise."
Bagged, loose chopped alfalfa is also a good alternative, he says.
"As with pellets and cubes, you feed it based on weight. Many of these products are also easier for your horse to digest than baled hay, because they're already chopped. Plus, you have zero waste and virtually no dust. Beet pulp is another highly digestible, affordable, and easy-to-find fiber source. There are lots of alternatives to baled hay in a shortage." (For more information on hay alternatives, see "Hay Substitutes," February 2009.)
"But instead of feeding them, some people cut back on their horses' hay rations because coastal was expensive and so hard to find; they then increased their horses' grain," he says. "A high-carb, low-fiber ration is the wrong way to feed a horse, and it was unnecessary."
Don says that rather than panic?or try to cut nutritional corners?in a hay shortage, work with an equine nutritionist (which you can find through your local county extension agent) and/ or your veterinarian to develop an alternative ration that fulfills your horse's dietary needs.
"During the drought, I put my horses on a high-fiber, low-carb concentrate, and supplemented it with alfalfa," he recalls. "Our pastures dried up, so they didn't even have grass. But they looked great on that ration. It was a manageable situation."
Hay Hotline Helps
With horse owners and ranchers desperate for hay in 2011, the Texas Department of Agriculture established a Hay Hotline, which lists over 1,000 hay producers from 42 states. (Go to gotexan.org/hayhotlinehome.aspx, or call  429-1998.)
It also lists hay prices, information on transportation services for hay delivery, and available grazing lands for ranchers. (Texas' cattle population plummeted as a result of the decimation of grazing lands due to drought, coupled with high hay prices and a lack of water.)
In addition to listing sources with hay for sale, agriculture commissioner Todd Staples facilitated a "hay drive," prompting out-of-state hay producers to donate hay to struggling ranchers. He also worked with other states to ease transportation size restrictions for hay shipments.
according to Texas AgriLife extension, agriculture losses due to the 2011 drought exceeded $7.6 billion, making it the costliest in state history. Last summer, State climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon declared the 2011 dry spell the "most severe one-year drought on record," while the national Weather Service called it the second- worst drought in Texas history.
Waste Not, Want Not
Having lived through Texas's drought-induced hay shortage, I became hyper- aware of waste in my barn. That meant my gelding, Izzy, had to sacrifice his stall window. He loved to hang his head out it and watch "Izzy TV" while munching hay. But the pile of hay outside his window meant he was "dropping dollar bills" on the ground. His window is now closed. (Sorry, Iz!)
Any stray hay in the barn aisle or around hay-storage pallets is now swept up and put in a big bucket, rather than blown out into a pasture. Look at your own horsekeeping setup, and see what you can do to conserve. And use these tips to stretch your supply of "green gold."
Store carefully. Prevent spoilage by stacking bales on wooden pallets in a shelter that protects them from sun and moisture. (If you lack a covered shelter, tarp the top and sides to prevent damage from rain and sunlight.)
Use a scale. Rather than guessing your horse's ration, weigh his hay. Buy a produce or heavy-duty kitchen scale and weigh each flake before feeding. If hay is his only source of calories, start with a ration of 20 pounds per day, divided into two 10-pound feedings. Adjust accordingly if he gains or loses weight, or if you supplement with concentrates.
Feed efficiently. If you find hay left on the ground or regularly pick up trampled stems when you clean stalls, you're either 1) over-feeding; or 2) in need of a more waste-free way to deliver it to your horse. Buy or build mangers or hay bunks, or take advantage of the new generation of small-diameter-hole hay nets, which reduce waste by encouraging your horse to take small, grazing-type bites rather than grabbing huge mouthfuls. (Such nets are now also available for square and round bales, to reduce waste in the field.)
What"s A Year"s Worth of Hay?
? The average, mature 1,000-pound horse needs about 20 pounds of grass hay daily. (More for hard keepers, high-level performance horses, or sub-zero temperatures; less for horses with access to pasture and those being fed alfalfa. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian.)?
? An average square bale of grass hay weighs about 60 pounds. (Add another 10 to 20 pounds for alfalfa.)
? Here's the basic formula: 20 pounds (per day) x 365 days (per year)?? by 60 pounds (per bale) = 121.66 bales.
? Adjust upward or downward, depending on your hay source's average-bale weight, the type of hay you feed, and your horse's individual needs.