Drought Continues to Challenge Horses, Owners

After a long, dry summer that left pastures scant and dusty and hay production plunging, drought conditions across the United States show no signs of letting up. And neither do the challenges facing horses and their owners.

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, a drought-monitoring service based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, as of mid-October the drought of 2007 extends coast to coast across the United States. This significantly affects large volume hay-producing states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia--driving the price of hay skyward as supplies dwindle.

"In some places there have been fewer hay cuttings, and in some places there have been no cuttings at all," said Cindy McCall, PhD, professor in the animal sciences department at Auburn University and equine specialist for the Alabama extension service. "What hay there is, is pretty hard to find, and most of it is coming from outside local areas."

And it's not cheap. According to McCall, during the drought-plagued summer, the cost of hay in Alabama ranged between $6.75 and $10 for a 50-pound bale. Round bales were even more expensive at $62 per bale, including shipping.

"And it's predicted that the round bale price will increase to as much as $85," McCall said.

It's tougher to pin down prices elsewhere in the country, said Don Kieffer, executive director of the National Hay Associaton. That's because price is driven by more than simple supply and demand. There's surplus hay in Texas and Oklahoma, he said. And a single Maine grower reported having some 30,000 bales ready to go to customes. But that's mixed news to hay hungry horse owners in the Carolinas and Virginia whose pastures suffered under the drought creating a greater need to feed hay.

 "There's plenty of hay out there, it's just in the wrong places," said Kieffer. "It's the shipping that drives the price up. With the cost of fuel at $3 a gallon, the transportation ends up costing more than the hay."

What's more, round baling cuts truckload size by half, he said, doubling total shipment costs.

But its not just horse owners' pocketbooks that have suffered through the drought. Parched conditions have wreaked havoc on horses' health, too, according to Alessandra Pellegrini-Masini, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor of large animal internal medicine at the University of Georgia.

"What we have seen and what we will see is that there is not so much pasture or hay, so horses have been eating more weeds. Some of those weeds--especially in the Southeast--are toxic, and some are high in alkaline, causing throat swelling and inability to breathe," Pellegrini-Masini said.

McCall said she doesn't see the hay and forage shortage improving in the near future. Lack of rain prevented area horse owners from planting winter forages such as ryegrass , and even Bermuda grasses have failed to survive the long drought.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't seem we're going to see the end of it," said McCall.

October rains across some drought--plagued states would help, said Kieffer, but they've been too little and come too late to have much impact.
"It's raining, but there's nothing growing right now," he said. "It's hard to say what hay prices are going to be next spring and summer."

As a result, horse owners are seeking alternative ways to keep roughage in their horses' diets. Pellegrini-Masini recommended Dengie hay a commercially produced heat-dried short-cut grass and alfalfa product that provides calories and proteins similar to high-quality hay. Introducing beet pulp and alfalfa cubes can also stretch hay supplies.

Whichever fiber alternatives owners use to stretch hay supplies this fall and winter, Pellegrini-Masini reminds them to bear their horses' sensitive systems in mind.

"Whenever you make a change in a horse's diet, you should make it extremely slowly," she said. "Many of the problems we've seen have been the result of rapid changes in horses' diets because of the scarcity of local hay and forage."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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