This is the second in a series about challenges facing the agriculture and equine communities.
By Karen Brainard
Higher hay prices are forcing many horse owners in Ramona to make adjustments so they can afford to feed their horses.
Those adjustments not only impact what the horses eat but how the owners live, and for some maintaining a horse has just become too costly.
“The prices are making it very difficult for people to hang onto their horses,” said Stephanie Sweet of CowHorse Ranch in Ramona.
At Ramona’s Rocking K Ranch, Kimberly Blanche-Sebesta said, “Honestly there’s a lot of people getting out of the business or sport because it’s getting too expensive, and that’s unfortunate.”
Robin Joy Maxson at Rancho Pama in Ramona said they have five horses and four of them were practically “give-away” horses because their previous owners could no longer afford to care for them.
The three horse owners are doing what they can to minimize the hit they have to take to feed their horses.
Blanche-Sebesta said for her five horses she bought a half load of Bermuda hay, which she said is equal to about 256 bales, to get through the winter.
By purchasing a half load, the price per bale averaged $13, said Blanche-Sebesta. In comparison, she said, Bermuda hay has been advertised for $14.95 per bale plus tax. About two years ago, that half load of hay averaged $8 per bale, Blanche-Sebesta noted.
The half load should last until April or May, said Blanche-Sebesta. While she will have to protect it from rain, Blanche-Sebesta noted she will still lose some hay on the bottom of the stack from moisture.
After she purchased the half load, Blanche-Sebesta said she heard the cost of a half load of hay in El Paso, Texas, averaged at $4 per bale. To have hay shipped, however, the buyer has to pay roundtrip fuel costs because the grower will have an empty truck returning, she noted.
“You will pay it in trucking,” she said of the cost difference.
Wayne Elston, owner of Elston Hay & Grain in Ramona, said the rising hay prices have been the result of less supply and more demand. Hay may be cheaper in other parts of the country, he acknowledged, but consumers will pay more for shipping and possibly receive a product of less quality. California produces quality hay, he said, and the majority of the alfalfa and Bermuda comes from Imperial Valley.
To get through these difficult times, horse owners are using different types of forage, he said, adding that a lot of people in California do not understand that their horses do not need perfect green hay.
While working horses pretty much need alfalfa or a Bermuda mix, Elston said, a backyard or trail-riding horse can get by on a lower grade of hay mixed with a bag of feed for roughage and a balanced diet. The owner can increase or decrease the forage quality, he said, and the horse will eat it.
Sweet said she buys Bermuda hay and throws in extra pellets for nutrition for her three horses.
“It’s not the best,” she said, “but my horses love it.” They have kept their weight on, she added. “For people who cannot afford expensive hay, it’s a good alternative for a period of time.”
CowHorse Ranch has a well, she noted, so they can water the pastures and when the grass has grown, put the horses out to graze as another way to cut down on the feed bill.
Another tip that Elston provided was to weigh feed to prevent waste.
Although Blanche-Sebesta said she doesn’t weigh the feed, she added “you’re just trying to be not as wasteful. Feed more efficiently.”
Maxson said she feeds her horses mainly heavy alfalfa and Bermuda hay and places a feed order every two weeks. In the past year her feed order has gone from $110 to $210, but has recently backed down to $190. That is still $80 higher than it was a year ago.
“This severe increase in hay prices has resulted in less money for other equestrian-related activities, such as we have put off hiring a trainer for our youngest horse, Duke,” she said.
But Maxson also noted, “There’s certain things we cannot defer,” including vaccinations and veterinary visits.
Maxson said they bought a less expensive horse trailer this spring as the monthly commitment to feed their “small herd” is the priority.
According to Elston, a lot of his customers have said they are tightening their belts, getting rid of outdoor recreational toys and staying home instead of traveling so that they can keep their animals.
Horse owners are kind of in a Catch 22 situation, said Blanche-Sebesta, because they have to feed their animals but also pay for their own shelter, food and necessities.
“Everything’s going up,” she commented. “Everything but our salaries.”