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Hay shortage squeezes horse owners

For horse owner Deborah Tootle of Little Rock, the winter of 2007 has presented an additional challenge: where to find enough hay for her big, gray quarter horse.

“It's very hard to find this winter,” said Tootle. “With the drought, it's all gone. I've had to look for hay sources beyond what my barn covers for board and that's been a challenge.”

The cold, wet winter and last summer's drought are putting Arkansas horse owners in a three-way squeeze for hay, pastures and the hoof health of their horses, said Steve Jones, equine specialist for the Arkansas Extension Service.

Hay isn't just part of a horse's daily meal, it's critical for surviving cold winter weather.

“Digestion of hay creates body heat for the horse, which is why hay is so important as winter temperatures arrive,” said Jones.

“There's no hay because of last summer's drought and most of our excess hay went to Texas, where they've been in a two-year drought. We sometimes get hay from Mississippi and Alabama, but those areas are still recovering from the hurricanes.

“Anyone looking for hay will see that prices are up to $5 to $6 a square bale or $60 to $70 a round bale. That's up 40 percent to 50 percent from last year.”

Bill McDowell of McDowell Farms in Sparkman, Ark., has more than 80 horses and 150 head of cattle. McDowell orders all his hay for the year even before the first bale is made.

“I was lucky,” said McDowell. “A few years ago, I started buying off a guy who irrigated.”

However, like everyone else, McDowell is paying more. “The prices are about 25 percent more than the previous year because fertilizer has gotten so high.”

Even if hay is not available, there are options for horse owners. “One alternative for horse owners is a complete feed, which has fiber in it,” said Jones. “It's expensive, but all your major feed companies have a high-fiber horse feed.”

Jones also warns horse owners to ensure a good supply of water. “Any time you increase fiber, you must increase water intake. Horses don't like cold water. If you don't have heated water, make sure you have a water source that sits in the sunlight.”

Abundant mid-January rains have produced an additional concern for horse owners: finding dry ground for their horses to stand on to preserve hoof health.

“This is double jeopardy,” said Jones. “This time of year, horses' hooves don't grow as fast as during the warmer season. You get them wet and saturated and they really don't grow. The water makes it difficult for the farrier if he's resetting shoes. The foot gets soft and the nails don't hold. They get sucked off in the mud.

“If your horses are outside, make sure they have a place where they can stand on dry ground. If it's gotten muddy, move the hay rack and feeding area to a drier location. Around those feeding areas, it gets muddy and manure and urine accumulate. It becomes a good place for bacteria and bugs to live and cause foot infections.”

Jones advises horse owners to clean and check their horses' hooves at least once a week for thrush and to be sure that mud and manure aren't packed up in the foot and to let air circulate under the foot.

The wet weather also spells trouble for pastures.

“If you've got cool-season grasses that you're grazing, you need to rotate the foot traffic. In the soft ground, foot traffic will pull up the grass and upset the root system and you're not going to have grass there in the spring when you really need it. This is also true in the pastures with dormant bermudagrass in it. Rotate your horses off that land and let the ground rest.”

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