Extreme Weather Results in Lack of Forage for Horses

Extreme Weather Results in Lack of Forage for Horses

Whether due to lack of moisture or excess water, extreme conditions are driving hay prices skyward and stretching resources of owners already struggling to keep their horses in a tough economy.

Photo: Photos.com

After being deluged by Hurricane Irene's remnants in August, horse owners in Rochester, Vt., are challenged to maintain their animals through the winter. And in Texas horse owners are struggling to feed their animals amidst the worst drought conditions in nearly a century. Whether due to lack of moisture or excess water, extreme conditions are driving hay prices skyward and stretching resources of owners already struggling to keep their horses in a tough economy.

Leslie Carlson, owner of Cobble Hill Stable, in Rochester, said floodwaters from Hurricane Irene-related storms inundated hayfields throughout the White River Valley. When the waters receded hayfields were covered with silt and debris. Local producers harvested a first hay cutting before Irene arrived, but with no second harvest possible, horse owners who rely on local growers will likely be short-supplied this winter, she said.

"Most people haven't thought about it because the horses still have another week or so on pasture, and because they're so busy repairing their homes," Carlson explained. "But in February ... horses are going to need hay. It's an urgent situation."

In response, Carlson said the Rebuild Rochester Vermont Foundation Inc., a nonprofit corporate trust established to provide storm recovery resources, is accepting contributions to help feed the horses until they can return to their pastures. Carlson hopes the effort will raise enough contributions to fund a delivery of 3,705 bales of hay from a broker willing deliver it to the 16 horse owners in the area.

"All we have to do is get them through to May when the horses can get back on pasture," Carlson said.

While the Rochester horse owners cope with temporary results of too much rainfall, their Texas counterparts are struggling through a drought with no end in sight.

Dennis Sigler, PhD, professor and extension horse specialist in the Animal Science Department of Texas A&M University, said soil moisture in Texas is at the lowest level since 1918. As a result, pastures are parched and horse owners in that state are paying soaring prices for hay.

"(In some areas) the cost for Bermuda Grass hay has risen from between $5 and $6 a bale to $10 a bale," Sigler said. "Alfalfa prices have risen to $12 to $15 a bale (and upwards)--and that's if you can find it."

Jennifer Williams, PhD, executive director of the College Station, Texas-based Bluebonnet Humane Society, said that in 2010 she paid between $4 and $6 per square bale hay and between $45 and $60 for round bale hay delivered. This year square bale hay prices have more than doubled to between $10 and $13 a bale, and round bale hay has risen to around $80 per bale and upwards.

"And that's if you can find it," she added.

Williams purchased some of her hay from growers in Arkansas. Sigler said some Texans are purchasing hay supplies from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Florida. Transportation costs from the farthest sources can add more than $1,000 to already high hay prices, he said. But even owners willing to pay aren't always accommodated.

"Some suppliers are taking on no more customers and are limiting allocations to existing customers," Sigler said.

Sigler said Texas A&M climatologists predict that the drought plaguing Texas and other parts of the Southwest will continue until 2020. The ongoing lack of water and local hay resources will continue to drive all horse keeping costs including breeding, boarding, and training fees upward, with serious consequences for horses, Sigler said.

"People will have to decide whether or not they want to bear these increased costs," Sigler said. "If not, you're going to see more horses turned out (going hungry). A lot of adoption facilities are going to go under."

To help keep horse rescues afloat, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has awarded hay purchase grants to 24 equine welfare organizations in drought-stricken states including Texas and Oklahoma. Williams' rescue received some of those grant funds to feed horses already under Bluebonnet's care. But her agency is unable to help other horses at risk.

"There's no room at the rescue, and we have fewer people adopting or fostering because no one wants to take on another mouth to feed," Williams said. "This is a huge emotional and financial burden. I don't know how long most of us can continue."

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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