They may have enviable riding weather in the Deep South, but it’s no place to try and put up hay.
In Kentucky, home of the famed derby, they get 46 inches of rain in an average year.
And in Florida, where horse racing and stud farms are a big industry, it rains a little nearly every evening. What’s more, the extreme humidity turns even carefully stored, dry hay into mush in just three months.
For those reasons, horse owners there have to import almost all of the hay they need to feed pampered ponies and thoroughbred racehorses.
“Right away, I know you are going to say, ‘Who wants to do horse hay? Horse hay people are so picky.’ But it really is a huge market,” said provincial pasture and rangeland specialist Jane Thornton, who toured the area with a group of hay producers last March.
Apart from dairy, horse hay is the only other premium forage market. The upside is that demand for commercial or pleasure horse hay operates in a different world from the agricultural sector, and when one is down, the other might be up.
Florida may have been hit hard by the slumping economy and real estate crisis, but hay buyers say there is always a market for premium-quality alfalfa or orchardgrass hay.
“The market really is about pretty hay,” she said. “Another thing down there is that it’s all about service.”
Prices ranged from $350-$450 per tonne at retail, she added.
Some operators bring their hay in by rail from Idaho in open cars, and suffer heavy damage due to rain. Another operator runs a hay retail depot, then offers a mucking-out service to bring the manure back for composting into potting soil on an enormous 20-acre concrete pad.
Post-recession, volumes have fallen, and getting into the market now might be difficult. However, as with local horse hay customers, efforts aimed at building long-term relationships and a reputation for reliable, high-quality supplies go a long way, she said.
“For us to move into that, you really need to build a relationship with them. When you sell a load out, you want to know that you’re going to get paid,” said Thornton.
“For them, they want to know that people really know what good horse hay is. If it’s off even a little bit, they can’t sell it and it just becomes a disposal problem for them.”
Darren Chapman, of Chapman Bros. Farms near Virden, who went along on the tour, offered his perspective as a hay producer. Most of the bales sold were small squares or three-string bales up to 100 pounds each, he said.
“A lot of the brokers were looking for larger lots of consistent hay that they could put on their shelves and display for a three-month period,” he said, adding that would mean a 100-to 150-tonne lot.
“That’s a bit of a barrier, because a lot of us don’t get that much hay up with the same consistency.” [email protected]