Plan Ahead for Hay This Winter

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A Cross-Canada Checkup

By Margaret Evans

Given the extreme weather in many parts of Canada in the summer of 2017 – hot and extremely dry in the west; rain and flooding in other areas - hay supply for the coming winter has been a top-of-mind concern for many horse owners.

“It’s been a summer of extremes – hot and dry in BC and Alberta, and rain that wouldn’t stop in Ontario and Quebec, while Saskatchewan was also very dry,” says David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “In Ontario, some farmers had no hay crop at all. The ranchers and farmers have very been hard hit. It’s been one of the worst summers. Last year it was so dry and this year so wet. Last year we could not get any rain. This year it was hard to get equipment on the fields and for crops to be harvested. It was a real challenge.”

With the tough challenges facing farmers, feed supplies or the lack thereof trickle down the supply chain, placing corresponding challenges on horse owners wanting to secure a hay supply before the winter sets in. It hasn’t been easy.

“In Ontario and Quebec, hay growers could barely get a crop,” says Phillips. “It would rain all the time and they couldn’t string together three or four days for drying. Some were lucky to get just one measly crop off. In southwest Ontario it was a bit better but north of Toronto and eastern Ontario it was bad.”

Brandon Hall, marketing and communications manager with the Ontario Equestrian Federation in Richmond Hill, agrees, saying that 2016 was very dry with fields sunburnt before second cut and grazing pastures unable to grow, so that winter stock hay was being used much earlier.

“Owners struggled to find hay in the spring before first cut this [2017] season,” he says. “This year was extremely wet [and] cut later [while] waiting for dry weather. Some were probably rained on and needed assistance drying but pastures have held up if they were not flooded.”

Hall says that the different regions in Ontario have been more productive than others. In some areas where there was isolated flooding, the first cut was late so hay quality was down and the yields were low. And some were not able to get a second cut. He has also heard of a lot of colic at the beginning of the season, perhaps from the switch from last year’s crop to this year’s.

According to Walter Brown with Quality Crop Care Inc. in Collina, New Brunswick, the province’s hay problem started in 2016 with a very open winter from Woodstock south, which resulted in substantial losses in the first cut. An “open winter” is one with either a lack of snow cover, or rain and above-freezing temperatures.

“The dry weather reduced the second cut to the point that both [first and second] cuts did not meet a normal first cut,” says Brown. “This resulted in most of the local dairy producers being heavy into the silage and hay market by July when these are usually where you would look to purchase hay. From Woodstock to the Quebec border it was better with most of the hay producers having a normal to slightly lower forage yield. In New Brunswick there is an area at the head of the Bay of Fundy, around Sackville, that also had lower than normal rainfall. However, we experienced many nights with low (5 to 10 C degrees) temperatures, which resulted in morning fog, and which did supply some moisture. This area normally produces forage for the market and is filling some of the losses again this year.”

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The right amount of moisture at the right time is a huge determining factor in hay production. Hay farmers who invest in irrigation equipment are less affected by drought conditions, but are still vulnerable to reduced crop yields if conditions are too wet during harvest season. Photo: Canstock/Aorlemann

In British Columbia horse owners experienced one of the hottest, driest summers and the worst wildfire season on record. In Chilliwack, precipitation was 80.4 percent below normal in July and 94.6 percent below normal in August. Once Fraser Valley hay farmers had taken off the first cut in June, hay fields simply shriveled up and failed to grow in the scorching heat of summer.

“There is a 100 percent shortage of local hay in the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island, especially the second and third crops,” says Jason Vanderveen with Vanderveen Hay Sales in Surrey, BC. “I know there is hay around right now between the Interior, Alberta, Washington, and Oregon. Washington State was not affected so much because generally all the hay growers had sufficient water supply and irrigated. [But] I believe that hay will get tight into the springtime, especially if you have a specific type of hay you prefer to feed. Don’t be surprised if you have to lower your expectations of quality and still pay the same price. I fully believe that hay prices will be dictated by the lack of rain we have been seeing over the last couple of years.”

He says that dairy farmers in general are the producers of most local hay and when it is dry they understandably need all the feed they can get for their own animals, which leaves slim pickings for the horse owners who rely on that supply chain. And, to some degree he says, we’re affected by the export market.

“The export market overseas drives the price and this year it is a very strong market,” says Vanderveen. “My best advice is if at all possible, if you have the storage and find a product that fits your animals well, fill your barn when you can. Hay that’s here today is generally gone tomorrow.”

However, what has been a dire year in some regions has been a good year in others.

“The Interior fires have not had an effect on any of our growers, and hot and dry is typically a good thing as it means good production and harvesting conditions in general for hay and forage crops,” says Jim Hutt who owns Cascade Hay Sales in Chilliwack, BC. “All of our Interior growers are 10 percent irrigated. I fully expect shortages in the Fraser Valley due to the dry summer. The Valley is, for the most part, not irrigated and therefore, with the lack of rainfall, local grass hay fields stopped growing. Additional cuts after first cut (second and third) this year are almost nonexistent in the Valley.”

Yield for the most part is normal with the growers he depends on, says Hutt. However, one of them is down in quantity due to spring run-off that caused issues with their irrigation system. That resulted in a lack of enough ground moisture early in the growing season.

“There may, however, be issues with beef cattle producers in the Interior being affected by fire,” says Hutt. “Summer rangeland was definitely affected by many of these fires. The result may be earlier than normal hay feed requirements for large cattle herds as they will be off summer range sooner than they would be in normal years. This too will increase demand on hay overall that could reduce what is left available to horse owners. They should be prepared for shortages especially if they typically rely on local grass hay as their primary feed and this would include owners on Vancouver Island. I would highly recommend buying now if they can manage the financial outlay.”

As we go through the winter, Hutt feels that he most likely will be sourcing more hay suppliers.

“The effects of supply and demand could very well come into play due to the local hay shortage, and if Alberta hay becomes limited later in the winter feeding period,” he says. “Increased shipping costs too have a major effect the further afield dealers have to go to source quality hay.”

In Alberta, hay production varied a great deal region by region.

“The 2017 hay season has been a rollercoaster for farmers across Western Canada,” says Danielle MacPherson, customer product consultant with Alfa Tec Products in Legal, Alberta. “While the south has been dealing with a major drought, many of the northern haying regions dealt with excessive rains making putting up good dry hay very difficult. We’ve been fortunate to be in the region that received just enough rain for bumper hay crops and just enough warm sunny days to put it all up dry. [But] there is a level of concern about winter feeding for many livestock as well as horses.”

In Langley, BC, Tamara Wrayton of Wrayton Transport Ltd. Hay Sales says that she is not currently looking farther than usual for hay and that they should be able to source enough hay from their usual suppliers in central and southern Alberta as well as the BC Interior. But even so, the question of moisture came into play region by region. 

“Even farmers with irrigation have had trouble getting their second and third cut crops in,” says Wrayton. “The first cut crops overall in Alberta and the BC Interior have been fabulous. The warmer dryer spring allowed farmers to get on the fields early so first cuts are of excellent quality and the quantity is also good. However, in places without irrigation, central Alberta for instance, there is little or no second cut. Second cut in central Alberta, though, is usually scarce. This does vary greatly from farm to farm [and] many farmers don’t bother with second cut because they don’t feel it’s worth the diesel to drive around the fields. Those who normally get good second cut crops are hurting from the lack of moisture.”

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For those who have the financial means and storage available, most hay suppliers recommend buying your winter hay in the fall, as the market forces of supply and demand could drive up hay prices in many parts of Canada later this winter. Photo: iStock/Epicurean

She says that anyone who normally irrigates and gets second and third cuts has had to struggle to get enough water on the fields this year. “Many farmers invested in more irrigation equipment after the drought two years ago, but there is only so much you can do when the days are SO hot, dry and sunny.”

In addition, what Wrayton is finding is that owners are becoming more discerning about the hay they feed their horses, especially when it comes to sugar content.

“More horse owners are looking for tested hay,” she says. “What I am finding is overall the hay is testing slightly higher sugar over past years. A field that tested fairly consistently over the last few years is about two percent higher in sugar and about two percent lower in protein this year. This is due to the weather I suspect. Individual microclimates will impact carbohydrate storage. I don’t have good information on the microclimate this year, or ever, for an individual farm or field, but I suspect colder nights and warm days have caused this trend.”

As much as horse owners may need clarity on hay content, many are equally concerned about cost and are connecting the dots that if supply is down and demand is up, prices will follow.

“Prices have gone up already, not greatly but somewhat overall,” says Wrayton. “Some farmers are asking significantly more, some are charging the same as last year so that has allowed me to increase our prices by an average of $20/ton overall. I was hopeful early in the season, after the wonderful first cut crop, that prices were coming down this year but the summer heat and the fires in the Interior of BC have dashed those hopes. Prices are based on supply and demand of course, so I do think we will see them possibly go up a bit over winter, especially if we have a cold winter again. However, I don’t see a huge increase coming.”

Similarly, in Ontario, prices have gone up. Hall says that small square bales have increased 10 to 30 percent depending on the area.

“It’s getting harder and more expensive to afford, let alone find, small square bales,” says Hall. “Many of our members are looking for alternate options for forage, like forage cubes, as cost, quality, and availability are typically guaranteed.”

Conditions are echoed in New Brunswick.

“In the area where I live most farmers selling forage do so on a regular basis and do not change prices when the supply is lower,” says Brown. “Their advantage this year is that their forage is all sold rather than having to wait until April to clean up their supply. Small square bales are getting difficult to find and the price varies depending on location and size of bale but price ranges from $2.50 to $4.50 with bales in the 40 to 45 lb size. 4x5 round bales of hay and silage run from $30.00 to $35.00. Most of the hay in New Brunswick is a timothy-based hay with some clover or alfalfa.”

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The horse owner considering the option of feeding round bales must have the equipment to handle them and the necessary storage capacity. Photo: Shutterstock/Crisp0022

Across the country, it seems, horse owners are looking at the option of feeding round bales. The challenge comes with the need for storage space, as well as equipment to move round bales that will weigh several hundred pounds.

“Square bales are getting more difficult to find due to the labour required to handle them,” says Brown. “More horse people are being forced to use some round bales. We did in 2014 because of a lower yield that year. We did not allow the horses direct excess, but I know of people who are giving the horses direct excess. The big thing about large round bales is to know what your farmer considers as quality. The farmer we bought the round bales from was a dairy farmer who made good forage and I actually wanted his lower quality bales, late first cut.”

So, are round bales the feed supply of the future?

“As farming continues to evolve, we need to prepare for handling larger bales,” says Hall. “We need to accommodate storage and equipment to do this. Many of our members offer round bales in their paddocks [but] we are seeing that, in some cases, the small squares don’t contain as much dust in them as the large round bales.”

In addition, some horse owners are looking at alternatives to conventional hay and moving toward the use of forage cubes which are a good nutritional alternative and a reliable source of replacement feed during the winter should hay become in short supply. Quality and price are dependable. 

When there was a serious hay shortage in the Fraser Valley two years ago, I introduced my horses to hay cubes as a back-up. They took a while getting used to them and preferred them lightly soaked. Now they really enjoy them and hay cubes are on the regular evening menu and a permanent feed fixture going into the winter.

According to Phillips, we could be facing a very weak La Nina event again this winter. “We could have something like last winter but not nearly so bad.”

According to all the models by the Climate Prediction Center with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, equatorial sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern Pacific Ocean have been near to below average, a precursor of the formation of a La Nina event this fall and into winter. A La Nina event will bring cooler, changeable weather with the potential for more rain, snow, and ice that can make day-to-day horse care challenging.

The past few years have been a wake-up call as changing weather conditions bring new extremes. And this will likely be the trend going into the future as climate change ramps up.

“After the last drought, a lot of farmers I know invested in more irrigation equipment,” says Wrayton. “Is this a sign of things to come? Yes, in my opinion. Whether you believe climate change is the fault of human activity of not, you can’t deny the changes. Personally, I think we need to start adjusting to our new climate, to some unpredictability. Humans in their ingenuity, with the technology, should be able to cope [and] adjust to how we live to manage the new situation. Maybe we need to look farther north for our hay supply. Maybe we need to develop new seed stock, new cutting, curing, and baling techniques. The technology in farming is always changing so things will just continue to adjust I think.”

If droughts in western Canada become annual challenges, will we be looking further afield for horse feed? While snow pack is more important to Interior hay growers, a lack of rain across vast regions will strain the supply as it is already doing in the US.

“California produces a lot of hay and forage in a dry environment and under irrigation,” says Hutt. “However, it relies highly on imported hay from out-of-state to fulfill its needs for horse and livestock owners. As their water issues of recent years continue due to lack of rainfall and drought, greater reliance will continue on out-of-state hay to fill the gap. The same could happen here in south coastal BC and the Northwest in general if our climate continues to warm in the future and if spring precipitation and winter snowfall decline in the Interior and other Northwest regions.”

Hutt says that growers in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island don’t have irrigation in place but rather rely on rainfall. Many are hobby operations with small acreages and could never justify the high cost of irrigation. As well, regional water authorities may not allow additional high demand being placed on local ground aquifers as irrigation uses considerable amounts of water.

“As to what the changes in climate may mean for hay production, probably there will be some change in grass species as softer cultivars may survive the winters,” says Brown. “In our area, winters that do not have a good snow cover, or when we do not have frozen ground before we get snow, can result in less than optimal survival of perennial crops, resulting in thin, low-producing stands the next year. In New Brunswick we had lower that normal snowfall the last two winters so if we get a dry period in the spring, as we normally do in April, we are short of moisture all season.”

As we move into another possibly challenging winter for feed supply, plan ahead. Know what you will need to get through to next spring. Know where to get it. And build a good relationship with a local farmer for your supply and perhaps paid storage space. Thinking forward to future years, plan ahead for alternative sources of feed and hay supply options including round bales and cubes. Adaptation is going to be key.

Main Photo: iStock/SeanFBoggs