Back when Keil Bay and his magnificent painted pony sidekick Apache Moon joined our family they were boarded at a small stable that encouraged self-care, which meant we were responsible for mucking stalls, cleaning and filling water buckets, and supplying all feed and hay. For nine months my two children and I drove to the barn daily to ride and learn the work of living with horses. Once a week I bought their feed and hay and we loaded it into our minivan, drove to the barn, and unloaded bags into feed cans and bales onto a small wooden pallet in the hay storage area we were allotted.
I quickly learned the difference between orchard grass, timothy, alfalfa, and all the combinations. I learned to check for dust and mold, to feel the softness, and to look for sticks and other sometimes bizarre objects that got baled along with the hay itself.
Periodically the local feed store would run out of the hay we fed and a wild hay hunt would ensue. I remember well the harried drives all over a 5-county region in search of good horse hay.
Back then, with two horses, we paid feed store hay prices and were thrilled to pay them. All I cared about was that the supply remained intact and consistent.
Organic Orchard Grass: The Most Beautiful Hay
When we moved to November Hill I located a farmer who grew and sold organic orchard grass. It was by far the most beautiful hay I had ever seen, and the cost seemed low because we purchased it directly from him, alleviating the feed store’s mark-up. The owners of the farm we bought had already moved before our closing date. They graciously allowed us to go ahead and bring hay and stall shavings to November Hill so that when we moved in we would have what we needed.
I’ve written about this previously on my blog: how good it felt to see the dump truck deliver a mountain of gorgeous pine shavings and to know we could bank the stalls as high as we wanted. At the boarding barn we were allowed two wheelbarrows per week. We spent an evening here loading the stalls with shavings and it is one of the most perfect memories of my life. My children and I making trip after trip with our new wheelbarrow to each stall, banking those clean new shavings a foot high, making deep and lovely beds for Keil Bay and Apache Moon, who would join us the morning after our closing.
An equally perfect memory was seeing the hay stall that we had gradually stocked the weeks before we closed. The square bales were gorgeous, reasonably priced, and stacked neatly on pallets higher than I’d ever been able to stack them. We were stocked up with hay. There was plenty more to be had. I would not have to drive around in a mild panic looking.
We enjoyed this hay source for many years and, as the herd grew, we were able to get big round bales, even more affordable, especially as the cost of good hay skyrocketed. We traded in the minivan for a farm truck and bought a hay tent to store the big bales. I learned how to balance my horses’ diets, having the hay tested and using the numbers to balance minerals in correct ratios. Since hay is generally the bulk of what horses get fed, the hay test results are critical. This hay tested amazingly well.
Scrambling for Hay
We had a couple of drought years when the hay was less plentiful and our farmer ran out mid-winter. I had to scramble to find hay to tide us over until the spring cutting. But for the most part we were completely spoiled and our hay supply was steady and good.
Last fall our hay farmer, who is getting older now, unexpectedly sold his entire hay supply to two buyers. We weren’t notified and it was both a shock and a betrayal. Suddenly we were back to square one, looking for good hay, scrambling to find a new source. As it turned out, the best and most reliable source was our local feed store. Although 3x the cost each month, the hay was good, it was there when we needed it, and it was a relief to go back to buying the smaller, easier to handle square bales.
This spring we returned to our hay farmer but, from first to second cutting, the quality of the hay has seriously declined. Two of the 1000-lb. bales were used as mulch because our horses wouldn’t eat them. Last week my husband had to take back the round bale he’d purchased because it was full of stalks the size of my fingers. The second bale he brought home had to be returned as well.
Last week I bought a truckload of orchard bales from the feed store. Yesterday we went to a farm that trucks in hay from New York State and got a load of orchard/timothy bales. We plan to stock up, filling the hay tent first, then a stall, and finally the horse trailer. The cost is again triple what we were paying, but as I said to my husband: horses eat hay. It’s a non-negotiable expense.
The good news is they love it. We did a taste test last weekend, making small mounds of each kind of hay and watching them pick their favorite. I’ll send off the winner and get it tested. If we’re lucky the mineral profile will be easy to balance. And we’ll stock up as best we can.
Not Everyone Understands the Importance of Hay
It occurs to me that people who don’t live with horses have very little sense of how important hay is to their horsey friends. We talk about it, we watch the weather for states we don’t even live in because we need to know whether it’s going to be a good hay year. We look for it, we hoard it, we revel in it when we find good bales and sources. I hardly remember a time in my life when hay was not on my mind.
This fall we’re going into winter with a plan. We have a month’s worth in the tent and we’ll be adding to it each week or two. What we have been paying has been a gift but it was totally out of line with open-market hay costs. We were doing a lot of work getting the round bales off the truck, into the tent, and then forking it off many times a day. Our hay farmer is getting older and so are we! This gets us back in the ball park of “regular” cost and it gives us back the ease of use of square bales and flakes. I’m calling this a positive change and moving on to the next horsewoman’s seasonal delight – autumn and cooler weather and a return to riding!