GREELEY, Colo. – Juliana Lehman doesn’t know where the hay she’ll need this winter to feed the horses she helps will come from.
Lehman, who leads an organization that helps horses with financially strained owners by providing feed and other equine services, is among those who could struggle to find feed come January. That’s when some believe the state’s supply of hay could run out.
The small-scale farmers and horse owners – those who don’t have the resources to buy mass amounts of feed ahead of time – will likely suffer the most when the shortage arrives.
“I’m not sure what to do, but I’ll do everything I can,” said Lehman, the founder of the Colorado Horsecare Foodbank.
Lehman and others believe that a hay crisis occurring in Colorado is only a matter of time, as both the cost and need for hay are rising because of the demand from neighboring states that are coping with below-average hay production amid this year’s droughts.
As farmers from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and southeast Colorado come to the area in droves – desperate to feed their livestock back home – the price of hay has skyrocketed. The price for a ton of hay in northeastern Colorado has already increased more than 50 percent from what it was just a year ago, with a ton of alfalfa sitting at about $200 last month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service,
And this winter, when the majority of the supply is gone and is most needed, it’s predicted that prices will be a lot higher, if there’s anything left to buy at all.
The situation leaves Lehman and others scrambling to buy hay now. She said some of the farmers from whom the organization traditionally buys hay have been fair during the recent time of escalating prices, and have still sold her feed at reasonable costs.
But others, she said, aren’t selling to her organization or anyone else right now – holding on to their hay, knowing that when winter comes, it will be even more valuable.
“It creates a serious situation,” said Lehman, who started the 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation in Evergreen three years ago, and since then has helped more than 150 horses stay with their owners. “Most of the people that will need hay at that time won’t be able to afford it.”
Most depressing to Lehman is what will happen when horses can’t be fed this winter, such as being abandoned or slaughtered.
Stan Gingerich, a Keenesburg area farmer, also sees evidence that a hay shortage is on the horizon.
Gingerich, who grows about 800 acres of hay, said he has gotten numerous requests regarding hay from out-of-state farmers, although he hasn’t sold to any out-of-staters, noting that he wants to stay loyal to his traditional local customers.
But he said he may not have anything to sell when January comes. He said he usually has at least 50 percent of his supply still in storage at the start of the new year, but because of local farmers buying it quickly in fear that out-of-state farmers will get to it first, and because of hailstorms earlier in the year that wiped out some of his crop, he doesn’t plan to have much, if any, left at that time this year.
He said that his primary buyers when January rolls around are horse owners.
“It’s going to be really tough for a lot of people,” he said. “You look around and already there’s just not much hay anywhere.”
While small-scale farmers and horse owners look to be the most affected because many can’t buy in bulk early on, large-scale agriculture operations, too, have had and will have their difficulties with higher hay prices.
Garrett DeVries, owner of the Monte Vista Dairy near Gill that has about 4,000 head of cattle, has only bought about 3,000 tons for this winter, though he usually buys anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 tons.
DeVries, also a veterinarian, said dairy cows consume much more corn for silage than they do hay, and are also fed various grains, so altering a dairy cow’s diet to give it less hay isn’t detrimental to its health.
“But you do have to watch things very closely when making any dietary changes,” DeVries said, noting that keeping a dairy cow’s fiber and protein intake at healthy levels is crucial.
However, horses are more dependent on hay, said Lehman, as it sometimes makes up 90 percent or 100 percent of their diets.
“Horses in this state could really be in trouble this winter,” Lehman said.