With shortage of hay, farmers are struggling

Horses: Poor harvests have left supplies low, prices high, and breeders worried about feeding their animals.

December 14, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

You might call thoroughbred-farm owner J. William Boniface a connoisseur of hay. He has to be because the 200 horses in his care depend on top-quality crops for their winter feed.

But because of 2003's wet weather, which followed 2002's drought, good hay is as hard to come by in Maryland as some gourmet foods - and costs about as much. And that has many in the state's agriculture community concerned.

"It's been terrible," said Boniface, whose Bonita Farm is in the Harford County town of Darlington. Horses' sensitive digestive systems require a diet of hay that is very dry, and free from must and mold. Such hay is tough to find after a year of record snow and rain.

"A guy with cows can get by with a little mold, but the horse owner can't," he said.

Boniface, who is accustomed to paying about $150 a ton, or about $3 a bale, for high-grade timothy, a grass hay, finds himself paying nine times that now. His broker is shipping hay by rail from Washington state to New York, then trucking it to Maryland. Other supplies are coming in from Colorado, he said.

"It's damned expensive," said Boniface, who needs about a ton of hay each week.

He's in plentiful company these days as brokers, farmers and growers scramble to find enough hay for today, much less lay up stores for the winter.

Glen Gannon, a hay broker in Easton, said he is on the phone every day, searching for supplies. "That's what really makes me leery," he said, "because we're not even to Christmas. What's it going to be through February and March?"

Gannon said he is paying a dollar or more extra per bale to bring hay in from Canada and elsewhere, which adds up when considering that 850 bales make up a typical shipment. That cost, he said, is getting passed along to the consumer.

"There is going to be hay, but the quality of the hay is most likely not going to be as good," Gannon said he has been telling customers.

Some are stocking up, and some are grumbling. But most accept that it's a problem up and down the East Coast, Gannon said. "They all say this weather situation is something that makes world news," he said. "It's not like they can go to the next county or next state and it will be something different.

Hay supplies in Maryland, as of Nov. 23, were ranked short or very short in 43 percent of the state, and adequate in the remainder, said Lester Vough, forage-crops extension specialist with the University of Maryland. Supplies were the shortest in Southern and Northeastern Maryland, the state's agricultural statistics service showed.

Hay is a winter staple for horses and livestock after snow and cold diminish pastures. Hay is made from alfalfa, clover or any of several grasses. Cuttings begin in the middle to late spring and vary by crop: Alfalfa is cut about every 28 days, while grasses such as orchard and timothy are cut twice during the season, say farmers who grow forage crops.

Although livestock can tolerate lower-quality hay with higher moisture content, horses need a mix of alfalfa and grass hays, with a moisture content no higher than 15 percent to 20 percent, Boniface said.

"They get a lot of moldy hay and they get colic," Boniface said, a potentially fatal condition.

Vough said the hay problems began last year, when a record-breaking drought parched crops. Then a record-setting cold and wet winter forced a longer hay feeding season. Then came three more seasons of rain.

"We cleaned out barns like we haven't cleaned our barns in a long time," Vough said. "There was just no carry-over of hay in 2002."

Vough is watching hay reports put out each week by the agriculture department in Pennsylvania, as well as hay auctions in Westminster, Cheltenham and the Lancaster, Pa., area.

"There is a limited supply of hay," Vough said. "The longer you wait to buy it, the harder it will be to find and the lower the quality will be. The good-quality hay will sell first."

Richard Holloway, a Darlington farmer who grows alfalfa and other hay crops, and has dairy cattle, knows that well. He said his hay shed, which holds 20,000 bales, is half-empty. "We didn't even get that thing full this year. We should have had that filled two or three times," Holloway said.

"I'm getting phone calls from people I've never sold hay to before," he said, which tells him the supply is tightening.

Spring and summer wet weather compounded farmers' problems by bogging down harvesting, leaving hay in the field to overmature and lose nutrient content, said Ed Grimmel of Jarrettsville, who farms about 3,600 acres, raising corn, wheat soybeans, alfalfa, orchard grass and timothy.

He estimates that he put up 25 percent of his hay in good condition, while 50 percent was fair and the rest good for only mulch.

He added: "The rain grew a good crop, and the rain ruined a good crop."

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