I'm learning a lot about drought this year. The stories from Australia are horrifying, but some recent ones from right here in the USA are enough to make you realize just how fragile the horse business is. Let's face it: we need cheap gas and cheap hay to keep feeding all the horses and moving them for place to place. Thirty years ago, only the serious horse show people had trailers, while today, our horses seem to be on the move. Some owners don't even have a place to ride without loading the horses up and taking them somewhere.
And then there's hay. A recent article in Oregon's Register-Guard newspaper estimated that horse owners there who paid $70 a ton for hay last year are being asked to pay as much as $200 a ton or more this year...if they can even get it. After a cold snap in January increased demand, some hay dealers were sold out.
Hay prices are one of the x factors of the economics of horse ownership in the USA. While we all may pay the same for gas or a saddle or entry fees, there are some variables. Where hay prices are relatively cheap, owning a horse is much more economical than in some places, where a bale of hay can cost as much as a bag of groceries. On the down side of this, some people keep horses as long as hay is cheap and when the price goes up, the horses become expendable. Only the price of land seems more economically volatile. And they are related; when the price of land goes up, fewer acres are mowed for hay, and local horsemen must depend on hay that has to be trucked longer distances from unknown fields tilled by unknown farmers.
A dry spring and high fertilzer prices, followed by rain during the cutting season, may have hurt hay production in 2006 but in Oregon and in other parts of the country, farmers are changing their plantings. In some parts of the country, farmers are switching to horse hay, while elsewhere, they are switching to something else...or just not haying anymore. And in Oregon, the article said, some farmers may have simply chosen not to fertilize their fields or to cut back on fertilizer to save money, but with a corresponding drop in yield.
And over in Australia, the drought is so bad and the hay is so scarce that the government is actually advising horse owners to supplement what little hay they may have with shredded cardboard to help meet horses' fiber needs.
Around here, this is the time of year when people are mentally calculating how many bales it will take to get them through to good pasture time, if they have green turnout. You watch the piles in the loft shrink and you start to sweat a little, wondering where and when the next load will arrive, what it will cost...will it arrive at all?
Since it snowed yesterday, it may be a while before anything turns green here in New England. Count your bales and cross your fingers!