In Arizona, this past winter has been unusually cold and wet, and March is continuing the trend. This has been hard on the crops, and hay is no exception. Usually, this time of year, farmers are able to harvest the first cutting of hay, but until we get 30 days of warm, dry weather, the hay remains uncut. Although I bought a large load of hay in the fall, I had more horses than I expected this winter, and I am quickly running out of feed. Hay prices are almost double what I paid before, if I can find hay at all.
Having spent 16 years in Montana, this is not my first hay shortage, and I am sure it will not be my last. This is how to get through a hay shortage without selling your horses.
Buy the Expensive Hay
The first way to survive a hay shortage is the most obvious – buy the expensive hay, if you can find it. The hay may be lower quality than you are used to or a different type than you normally feed, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. Some years all I could buy was big rounds, another year I only had access to big squares. I have driven on icy roads and up sides of mountains to get good hay, loaded it, unloaded it, and stacked it all by myself. You do what you have to do.
Tip: If you can only get big rounds or big squares and you do not have a tractor, you can easily haul and unload these yourself with just your pickup. The farmer usually has a tractor and will load for you. When you get home, clip three cotton lead ropes with good bull snaps (buy them here) to the hay strings and dally them around a fence post. Have someone hold the lead ropes tight while you drive your pickup forward. The hay will slide right out.
Horses need 1.5 to two percent of their body weight daily in forage, and long-stem forage, like hay, is best for their digestive system and reduces the risk of colic, laminitis, and ulcers. Sure, hay can be expensive or hard to find, but it is best for your horse’s overall health.
Use a slow feed hay net (buy it here) and a hanging scale (buy it here) and weigh each of your horse’s meals to reduce waste. Using a slow feed hay net means that mealtime lasts longer, which reduces boredom.
It’s Hip To Be Square
If hay is too costly or if you cannot find any, the next best option is feeding cubes. Hay cubes are typically all alfalfa, but you may find an alfalfa/grass blend (they always have alfalfa in them due to alfalfa’s binding properties). Cubes are made from high-quality hay, so you can be sure that your horse is getting the best nutrition. They are also easy to feed by weight, and you will likely have less waste. These give your horse the essential long-stem forage that they need for good gut health.
If you are worried about choke, you can soak the hay cubes for 30 minutes before feeding.
When hay is abundant, cubes generally cost more than hay bales, but right now in Southern Arizona, per pound they are cheaper.
Stretch your hay by adding alfalfa, Bermuda, or Timothy grass pellets to your horse’s diet. These pellets are usually made from the best-quality hay, so you know your horse is getting the nutrients he needs. Replace an equal amount of hay by weight with pellets.
Because pellets are not essential long-stem forage, I do not like to replace more than half of my horse’s diet with pellets. So, if my horse eats 10 pounds of hay per feeding and I add pellets, I feed them five pounds of pellets and five pounds of hay. Dramatically changing your horse’s forage makes then ten times more likely to colic.
One major downside to pellets is that horses can eat them very quickly, so they are prone to boredom. This can lead to bad habits if your horse is not getting adequate exercise or stimulation.
Add Beet Pulp
When I feed pellets, I add beet pulp so that my horses get adequate long-stem forage. Beet pulp is highly digestible and holds water well, which keeps my horses well hydrated in the extreme Arizona heat.
Beet pulp is higher in calories than hay, so I am careful when feeding it to my easy keepers. My hard keepers benefit from it and put on a little weight.
You do not have to soak beet pulp before you feed it, but my horses find it more palatable soaked. Place the beet pulp in a bucket and add twice as much water. Let is soak for 30 minutes to one hour before feeding. Although soaked beet pulp can keep for up to 24 hours, I soak mine right before feed time so that I know it is always fresh.
This Too Shall Pass
Agriculture is a vicious cycle – some years are good, some years are bad. Some years are too wet, some years are too dry. Hay is abundant, hay is scarce. Horses are an expensive hobby even in the best years, but they can really strain your finances during a hay shortage. Buy the best hay you can afford, stretch your forage where you can, and know that the cycle will continue, and another abundant year will come.
What are your best tips for surviving a hay shortage? Let me know in the comments below!
Welcome! I've been a freelance writer since 2002 and have numerous horse-related articles published in print and online publications. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rocky Mountain College with a major in Equestrian Studies and a minor in Business Management. My current business ventures include High Plains Arena and real estate investing.