Plan Ahead: The earlier in the year you line up your hay source, the better. "You need to be thinking about hay when you don't need it," says John Diller, founder of the Internet Hay Exchange, a website that connects hay buyers and sellers through a searchable state-by-state database. "You really want to have a plan in place--a supplier lined up--by early summer, when the first cuttings are up. You do not want to be looking to stock up in November. That's when you end up paying a premium."
If you have a regular supplier you're happy with, consider making arrangements before any hay is cut. "Call in early spring and tell him how much you liked last year's hay and how you'd like to buy from him again. He'll be happy to know he's already got a buyer lined up."
Buy Direct: The more people who handle hay, the more expensive it becomes. "If I buy hay for $6 a bale, I'm going to want to sell it for $8 and the person I sell it to will want $10," says Emmit Rawls, PhD, a professor and extension specialist at the University of Tennessee. "To get the best price, you need to get as close to the person who grew and cut it as possible." Producers will also be able to provide the best information about the hay and are likely to keep the best quality bales for their own customers. You can find producers through local and online advertisements as well as through word of mouth. In addition, local agriculture extension agents may be able to recommend hay sources.
Watch the Weather: Although it's good to have a hay-buying plan in place, be prepared to improvise should conditions change. "It pays to think like a hay grower," says Gary Bates, PhD, a forage specialist with the University of Tennessee. "Watch how much rain you get and how your own pastures look. If it's a dry year, you'll probably need to feed hay sooner, but there will be less of it available. Those are the years you really don't want to wait to buy."
Buy in Bulk: A large shipment of hay is nearly always cheaper than multiple smaller ones because of transport costs. If you have the storage space, purchase all the hay you'll need for a year at one time. If you don't have the space, consider purchasing a year's worth of hay, but taking delivery in stages. "I purchase my round bales locally," says Rawls. "I've agreed to buy 10 a year but take delivery one at a time. He's happy knowing he's sold them, and I'm happy to not have to store them.
Another option is joining with other horse owners to make one large purchase together. "If you don't need an entire truckload yourself, split the cost with a few neighbors," suggests Bates. "Even if you have to move your portion a mile down the road yourself, it's still likely to be less expensive than if you each bought half a truckload."
Buy from Reputable Hay Sellers: Purchasing hay from someone you don't know could turn into an expensive mistake. "The golden rule is 'Know who you are dealing with,'" says Rawls. "If you see someone with good hay, ask where they got it. If you are using someone you found on your own, ask for references. It's not out of line to say, 'Who have you sold to in my area?' Then give that person a call and find out if they were satisfied with the hay and the entire business transaction."
Buy the Best Quality Hay You Can Afford: Lower quality hay might seem less expensive, but it costs you in the long run: You'll end up with more waste because your horses will likely leave much of it on the ground, and even if they do eat it all you will have to feed more to maintain their condition. If you purchase hay locally, arrange to see a bale from your shipment ahead of time or pull a single bale off the tuck when it arrives but before it's unloaded. "An ethical seller won't mind," says Rawls. "He's going to be proud of what he's produced and want you to see it."
When purchasing hay long-distance, checking quality is a bit trickier. Rawls suggests having a hay analysis done at a local agricultural extension office or laboratory. "Some states have mobile labs that will go from farm to farm and test the nutritional quality of batches of hay. You have hay tested before you agree to purchase it, but the smartest sellers are having it tested themselves and will have that information on hand for potential buyers."
Short of testing, there are other creative ways to check the quality of hay long-distance. "I've known people to break a bale apart, throw a few flakes in a box and mail it to a client before making a deal," says Diller. "It only costs a few bucks and everyone is satisfied."
Be a Good Customer : "If you leave a supplier because someone else's hay is a nickel less a bale, don't expect to be welcomed back if you realize that the cheaper hay isn't as good," says Diller. "You'll end up just having to buy more, and when you go back to your original supplier, you'll probably go to the bottom of his priority list next year."
Loyalty, however, is rewarded. "The hay producers I know really value repeat customers," says Bates. "As much as you like to have a reliable supplier, they want to have reliable customers. If you come back year after year, and pay your bills on time, they take care of you. You may find that when you call in June, they've already anticipated what you'll need and set aside your portion."
Adapted from "SPECIAL REPORT: Buying Hay in Trying Times" EQUUS 370, July 2008.