Horse Owners in Southern United States Challenged by Drought

Horse Owners in Southern United States Challenged by Drought

"Anyone can make assumptions on what costs will be as the winter progresses, or even if we recover from droughty weather for good (hay)production next spring and summer," said Dave Freeman, MS, PhD, of Oklahoma State University.


One of the worst droughts in recent years is stretching on for horse owners in Texas, Oklahoma, and other Southern states: The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that most areas of of Texas and Oklahoma are now enduring "exceptional" (D4, the most severe rating) drought, and parts of New Mexico and Kansas are also dealing with such conditions.

"Texas conditions continue to deteriorate what little they can from abysmal," reported the U.S. Drought Monitor said Sept. 13. "The lack of tropical activity (Tropical Storm Nate fizzled out and drifted into Mexico well to the south this week) and better odds of a second consecutive La Niña winter only add fuel to this well-fed and entrenched drought."

Further, a Sept. 15 report from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center indicates that drought conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and the surrounding states are expected to "persist or intensify" through Dec. 31 of this year.

A report from MSNBC estimates that since the drought began it has caused more than $5 billion in losses just in the agriculture industry, and relayed that more than 84% of Texas cattle ranchers have reduced the size of their herds to deal with the drought.

Horse owners in affected areas have been dealing with hay shortages related to the drought since at least early August. Dennis H. Sigler, PhD, a professor in the department of animal science at Texas A&M University (TAMU) and the TAMU Extension Horse Specialist, previously relayed that some owners have resorted to reducing the number of horses they care for in light of the lack of forage and high hay prices.

Dave Freeman, MS, PhD, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension equine specialist, said, "Hay supplies are available in many parts of (Oklahoma), but finding and affording are two different issues; transportation costs to move hay into the state from Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and states beyond easily double the cost of hay from its value in the field in those states.

"Another issue, especially with horses, is the quality of what was harvested is lower than in past years," Freeman added. "Partly due to low production of forage leading to very mature plants in hay, and partly due to haying of areas that normally wouldn't be hayed because of low quality of plant species (weedy fields). It requires some critical decision making on what is the best economic alternative of choices at hand, considering the high cost of all alternatives."

He added that in his state, "The cost (of hay) is variable and dependent on size of bale. There are many stories of round bales costing well over $100 per bale and small square grass (bales) well over $10 per bale, although there are similar stories of similar round bale hay costing $10 or $20 less or squares $3 to $4 per bale less. Location (of the hay), transportation cost, amounts purchased, (and other variables) make the price question difficult to characterize."

Added Freeman, "Unfortunately, there are no quick answers to (hay) cost and anyone can make assumptions on what costs will be as the winter progresses, or even if we recover from droughty weather for good production next spring and summer. The question that folks have to address is more long-term; remember that the Texas drought has been going on for many years, and even with good production years, forage prices will likely be higher than years past as input costs such as fuel and labor to produce rise."

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry provides a hay directory on their website for horse owners to consult when searching for forage, he noted.

Freeman also suggested horse owners examine some of the own management practices to determine if there are any adjustments they can make to ease the effects of the drought:

"Treat hay as a source of nutrition, not just ... a filler," he said. Cutting down on the amount of hay wasted can help cut down on the amount of hay purchased, even if in small amounts.

"Get busy in educating yourself on the viable measure to improve grazing forage production by winter forages, and preparation for next year warm season pastures," he added. "No one knows for sure what the rainfall will be, but knowing your alternatives for maximizing standing forage is even more critical in the near future." (See "Related Content" below for resources from

Freeman also encouraged horse owners struggling with the drought to look objectively at the situation and try to take emotion out of the picture when making decisions: "Most people respond to higher-than-normal costs of ownership by deciding how many horses they can or want to keep in the future. Even though many, many cow and calf producers don't want to reduce their herds, they have had to. As sad as it is, they do have a market for their herd numbers that they have to cull. Release of horses that have to be culled because of similar environmental issues is much harder, as is the emotional attachment to horses in general, so it makes it double tough for horse owners. There are no easy answers."

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About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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