No horsin’ around: Hay costing owners big bucks
BY DONNA VICKROY Sun-Times Media September 24, 2012 9:00PM
Assistant Manager Kristin Wuestenfeld feeds the cows Monday at Randall Oaks Barnyard Zoo in West Dundee. September 24, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 26, 2012 6:12AM
Hay may be for horses, but the skyrocketing price of it has some of their owners wondering if this isn’t the last straw.
Horse owners across the Midwest already are seeing the effect of this year’s drought on the cost of hay. Skyrocketing prices and threats of shortages are causing some to push the panic button. Some owners have become so desperate that they simply are abandoning the animals — a crime in Illinois — in open fields, forested areas or even along roads.
“It’s a double whammy,” said Tony Pecho, who runs Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, a nonprofit in Beecher. “All we’ve been saying for the past few years is that the economy is bad, the economy is bad. Now the drought. People who’ve been hanging on by their fingernails are done, just done.”
An unusually warm spring, coupled with July’s oppressive heat and low levels of rainfall, have stunted the hay crop.
Pecho, who bales his own, said his yield is about one-quarter of last year’s.
“Usually, I can get 6,000 bales from 60 acres,” he said. This year, he’s reaping between 1,000 and 1,500 bales, and that’s only because he was able to do a fourth cutting, thanks to late-season rainfall.
Triple the cost
Pecho is going to have to buy the rest of the hay. And soon, he said. Vendors are telling him they expect the crop to become very expensive by February or March.
The cost of a single bale on craigslist is $8 or $9 and up; last year’s average was $3. One bale can feed two to four horses a day.
Julie Schmitt, an Elgin hay reseller, said a typical growing season allows for four cuttings, one near the end of May, two in summer, and a fourth in September if the weather holds. Most growers this year had to settle for two cuttings.
Schmitt has been traveling to northern Wisconsin, buying and loading bales and bringing them back to the Chicago area, as far south as Palos Park, where she sells them for about $8 each.
“I’ve heard that some vendors are sitting on their hay, waiting for the prices to go even higher,” she said.
As a result, Pecho and other horse farm owners are getting calls daily from people looking to unload the animals that once were considered family but now are deemed a luxury they can’t afford.
Typically, horse owners first try to sell, he said, “but the market is flooded, so they’re looking for a place to donate them.”
Jeanette and Dick Durant have owned Bell View Acres, an equestrian training facility in Homer Glen, for 46 years. Jeanette said, “This is the first time a recession has hit us.”
The rising cost of feed has forced them to increase the monthly boarding fee for all 35 horses on their property by $30. That may go even higher come winter, she said.
Right now, she said, four or five owners who board their animals at Bell View are trying to sell them.
“In this economy, the last thing you need is a horse,” she said.
Others who board horses said they also are already or expect to soon be feeling the pinch of high hay costs.
“I am doing OK so far, but I don’t know what will happen by mid-winter,” said Casey Ratay, owner of St. Charles Farm horse stables. Ratay said his stables provide boarding and lessons, as well as a place to host parties.
“I have another load coming in next week, but I don’t know how much the prices will go up,” he said. “I have had the same supplier for a long time. They take care of you.”
As for the uncertainty in the horse stables industry, “There is nothing you can do — you have to go with the flow,” he said.
“The horses have to eat,” Ratay added.
Huntoon Stables in North Aurora provides riding lessons and training.
“We have never had an adverse effect other than prices fluctuating,” said Carleton Huntoon, 72, a third-generation operator of the family-owned stables.
“We have never had a time we could not get hay or a time it became so costly we could not buy it, but we are probably more fortunate than some. During my father’s years, we grew our own hay,” Huntoon said.
Huntoon said he was at horse show on Sunday, and another stable owner told him she was having to import hay from New York state.
“I assume the transportation adds tremendously to the cost,” Huntoon said.
Baythorne Farm Stables is a boarding and training center has 35 horses on 15 acres in Sugar Grove. The horses are fed a basic diet of hay and grain, but the largest percentage of diet is hay.
“The big problem is the availability of hay. It is well out of our geographical area,” said Matthew Trynoski, owner and head trainer at Baythorne.
Trynoski said his costs for hay are about 120 percent above normal because of the need to purchase hay from suppliers out-of-state. “It’s a supply-and-demand equation in our area and the typical economics associated more with demand than supply,” Trynoski said.
In the horse industry for 40 years, Trynoski noted that the high cost of fuel also causes the price to go up when the hay is shipped from a distance.
“I am currently buying hay from the upper peninsula of Michigan, and it adds a lot to the cost,” he said.
Trynoski was fortunate to put in an order of hay in the spring and early summer from local suppliers at a normal cost. But once the summer heat and dry conditions set in, there was no additional hay for them to harvest for the rest of the summer.
“We have never seen a drought year combined with the high cost of fuel,” he said.
“The other equation is the grain market. Historically, if we had a dry or poor yield, the grain prices were not greatly affected. But what is happening globally impacts our grain commodity market. We are looking at feed prices 80 to 100 percent higher. It is a double whammy.”
Huntoon agree, noting he has seen a 30 percent spike in the cost for grain since Aug. 1. “An increase of $3 per bag doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up,” he said.
Not just horses
The high cost of hay is not just affecting horse owners.
Randall Oaks Barnyard Zoo on Randall Road in West Dundee buys about 2,300 hay bales each year to feed pigs, goats, horses, donkeys, alpacas, sheep and cows, said Brian Mangiaracina, the Randall Oaks Park division manager who also runs the petting zoo.
Unlike humans, who can switch to chicken when the price of beef goes up or buy the off-brand foods instead of the name brand, there isn’t much he can do when the price of hay increases.
“We are kind of stuck. We need it no matter what,” Mangiaracina said. “I try to buy as much as I can early in the season, but I still need like 500 bales, so will have to buy at a higher rate.”
At the beginning of the season, hay was $4.25 to $4.50 a bale, and he anticipates the cost going up to $6.25 a bale for the next purchase.
The Dundee Township Park District, which owns the zoo, also purchases straw as bedding, and those prices have gone up slightly as well, Mangiaracina said.
“It puts a damper on the budget,” and means he’ll have to reconsider maintenance work or improvements on buildings in favor of feed, Mangiaracina said. “You just try to balance. Spending more on feed, you cut back on construction materials or another account and know you can’t spend all that money.”
Correspondents Linda Girardi and Janelle Walker contributed to this story.