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Hay prices stay high

Our wet spring gave many horse owners hope that hay would be plentiful this year and prices would drop. After many years of drought, we thought we deserved a break.The message from local hay suppliers and volume buyers: Don’t hold your breath. The cost of harvesting and transporting hay has gone up, so even if growing conditions are better, the price will remain high.The past two years have been particularly bad. A severe drought in Texas in 2005 led to a run on hay supplies in other states, including Colorado. In 2006, the San Luis Valley, a major hay-growing area, suffered from aphid infestation and a winter kill.”Supply is building, but hay prices are holding their own,” said Randy Hammerstrom, market reporter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Greeley. “It will take a number of years of good hay to get back to a normal carryover supply.””Prices are ranging from $8.50 to $11 a bale,” said Ryan Frakes, assistant manager at Big R on Highway 24. “The prices aren’t coming down from last year.””Prices for grass hay are running around $200 per ton,” Hammerstrom said. “That’s FOB [free on board], which includes cutting, baling and stacking but not transporting. Delivery and mark-up by the feed store can add $2 to $3 a bale.” The weekly hay report issued by the USDA quotes current prices for Colorado delivered hay from $230 to $250 per ton.It’s more cost-effective to buy hay by weight rather than by bale, since the price of bales is determined by average weight. Considering that horses should be eating 1.5 to 2 times their body weight in roughage each day, it’s wise to take every opportunity to save money.Hay supply is affected partly by how many cuttings a hay farmer can get from his fields. Much of the hay available locally comes from the La Veta and San Luis areas in southern Colorado. “The La Veta growers usually only get two cuttings,” Frakes said. “Iowa growers are now starting on their second cutting and will get another as well.” Because of Colorado’s short growing season, much of the hay available in local feed stores comes from non-local sources, and the cost of transport isadded to the price.”It’s prime buying time now, if you have a place to store it,” said Leslie Laing, who feeds 30-some horses at her boarding facility, Falcon Creek Farm. “Toward the end of the year, prices start going up. Trying to find hay around March or April is always interesting. It’s not like going down to the Safeway and expecting it to be on the shelves. You have to plan ahead.”Hay is available in a variety of bale sizes. A horse owner who is only feeding a few horses will typically buy small bales weighing 60 to 80 pounds. Like other consumer goods, the smaller size is the most expensive. Larger operations that have storage space and special equipment can buy by the ton or semi-truck load.Another popular option for those with many horses is buying round bales, which can weigh anywhere from 400 to 1,400 pounds. If you have the equipment to move them, they are usually a more economical way of feeding.”I use large round bales to feed my pasture horses,” Laing said. “Then, they can feed like their systems are designed to do: 24/7.” Laing also purchased feeders designed for round bales, which prevents spoilage and saves money in the long run.Hay quality (and nutritive value for your horse) is determined by when it is harvested. The best quality grass hay is cut when the seed heads are just emerging from the stem. At this early stage in its growth, the plant contains the highest relative feed value or RFV. As the plantgets older, the amount of indigestible matter increases.Some hay buyers insist on receiving a test report with their hay so they can be sure of its quality. But you can tell a lot just by inspecting the hay before buying. It should be free of mold, dust andweeds and have a fresh smell and a green color. The majority of nutrients are in the leaves, so look for a good ratio of leaves to stems, and the stems should be thin.Although hay should be in plentiful supply this season, it’s still a major expense for horse owners, and it pays to be a careful and knowledgeable consumer.

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