Hay prices are spiking this year, driven up by a drought-induced shortage of the crop. It’s affecting ranchers across the board, but horse owners in particular are feeling the pinch. Horses eat higher quality hay, so it’s harder to get. It’s forcing horse owners in Colorado to buy more hay from neighboring states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana and that’s driving the cost up even more.
Kathy Sherer had never set up a crowd-funding campaign before. But she had three hungry horses at her home in Durango, Colorado. Because of the drought in the southwest part of the state, she couldn’t find any hay to feed them. All her usual sources had dried up.
When she finally found a source, it was some three hundred miles away, and the trucking costs would increase the price by about a third. That was a crippling expense not only for herself but for everyone she knows who has horses, which is pretty much everyone in her community.
So she started a GoFundMe page in hopes of getting some donations to help defray the cost of hay for herself and her neighbors. She raised enough money to help get hay to several people in need, but then the funds ran dry. She said the local hay bank is a fall-back source of feed for animals in tough times, but even they didn’t have inventory.
“I saw a sign in front of a farm here that said ‘Free horses, no hay,’ Sherer said. “And that has to be, you know, pretty heartbreaking for those people.”
Sherer said people are making other tough decisions about their animals this year -- some are letting their horses get thin, putting older horses down early, or even turning them loose into the forests.
“They're a member of the family just like the cats and dogs are,” she said, “and so it’s really really hard.”
It’s been hard for Patty Carlisle too. She keeps rescue horses and grows hay in Ignacio, Colorado. She usually supplies Kathy Sherer with hay. But she’s had to turn all her regular customers away this year.
Carlisle said she’s down below a third of her normal production level due to the heat, winds, lack of irrigation water, and zero rain. She says growers with better water resources, like irrigation rights from a river, might be better off.
“But those of us who are using our pumps and sprinklers,” she said, “we’re not getting enough water to put on the field. We’re the ones having issues.”
Kent Gordon, a hay broker near Colorado Springs, said sourcing hay from big ranches with very strong irrigation rights is what enables him to keep going in drought years like this.
Gordon’s ranch and family hay business in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado is surrounded by hills. Hawks circled overhead as Gordon’s son and a friend heaved hay bales from a giant stack on the ground onto a customer’s trailer bed.
The hay in that stack had been hauled in from about three hours away in the northeastern part of Colorado, where the drought hasn’t been quite as bad this year. Gordon likes to buy and sell within the state, to support the local economy.
“But,” he said, “about three quarters of the state is in Stage 5 drought conditions. So it’s been really really tough.”
He said it’s essential for his business to be able to source hay from further distances away. He’s looking to buy from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho this year, but he said trucking hay in from those states will likely keep prices high.
Gordon said last year he could find hay at five or six dollars a bale. “In those exact locations now,” he said, “we're finding a lot of those are ten to twelve dollars a bale.” And, he said, “unfortunately it's probably going to go up more during the winter.”
Gordon said even at these higher prices customers are rushing to stock up. He’s hoping he can keep with the demand but it’s a challenge. “We can have a semi come in seven or eight o'clock in the morning,” he said, “and by noon you know those seven hundred bales are gone.” He said that happens almost every day.
Gordon is happy to be busy. But he hopes for his customers’ sake that next year’s hay season might give them some relief.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.