Surging prices for hay are hitting Arizona horse lovers and other livestock owners hard, and the situation could get worse before it gets better.
Good-quality alfalfa hay that cost about $12 per bale in January is now running about $18 at local feed stores.
In some cases, prices have nearly doubled in the past year, in a run-up blamed on short supplies and keen demand for hay in drought-stricken areas like Texas, as well as overseas demand in China and Japan.
While the cattle and dairy industries are coping with the high prices and the prospect of winter shortages, the situation is perhaps being most keenly felt in Arizona's so-called "pleasure horse" industry.
The high hay costs are prompting many horse owners to give up their animals - a situation that equine advocates say will only worsen the problem of abandoned horses.
"People are turning them out in the desert - they're giving them away," said T. C. Chicago, who with her husband, Ace, co-owns Marana Feed & Supply.
"I probably have somebody who comes in once a week with a flier, saying, 'I'm giving my horse away - I can't afford to feed it anymore.' "
Good hay required
Unlike cattle, which are typically fed a mix of hay of varying quality, grains and silage, horses need good hay as their primary feed to stay healthy.
Chicago said her store is selling a bale of good-quality alfalfa hay, the most common type in Arizona, for $18. At the start of the year, the same bale cost $11.50.
At Arizona Feeds Country Store, owner Kevin Bloomquist said his price for alfalfa hay has gone from about $9 a year ago to about $18 to $19 a bale now. Grain-based feeds also are expensive now, he added.
"As the price of grains go up, people would normally feed more forage products (like hay)," Bloomquist said. "Now the price of forage products has gone up, and people have no options."
Julie Turney, a northwest-side resident who competes as a barrel racer and boards a few horses, said she's had to budget carefully to cope with the higher feed costs.
"I'm trying not to take anything out of my savings account to cover this," said Turney, who saves up money for hay in the spring and for insurance on her barrel-racing mounts in the fall.
She quoted a hay price of $15 a bale to a new boarder in August, but now her cost is $18, she said, adding that she'll wait until next year to raise her charges.
Roger Adamcin, who owns Adamcin Quarter Horses in Oro Valley with his wife, said his hay costs have gone from $211 to $310 per ton in a year.
That's another $1,000 for a 30-day supply for the 65 horses boarded at the equestrian center and riding school.
"Hay prices have gone through the roof, literally," Adamcin said.
Like Turney, he's reluctant to raise his prices.
"We have to find a happy medium where we can cover some of these costs and still put food on our table, and provide a service for them (clients), because we love them, we love the animals," Adamcin said.
The hay-price increase has also hit Arizona's cattle ranchers, who have little leverage to pass their costs along, said Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the 2,000-member Arizona Cattle Growers' Association.
Though beef prices are currently high, cattle growers can manage what they spend to raise their livestock but can't pass on increased costs directly, Bray said.
"The market dictates what we get .. we are price takers, not price makers," he said.
Situation may worsen
The problem is, hay prices may get worse before they get better.
The current price spike is the result of crimped forage supplies due to drought in some areas, including Texas, and high demand from overseas, said Trent Teegerstrom, associate specialist with the University of Arizona Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
At the same time, there's less Arizona-grown alfalfa hay available as farmers have shifted to higher-value cotton and wheat crops, Teegerstrom said.
And that's not expected to change soon: Arizona farmers planned to plant 16 percent fewer acres of alfalfa hay this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Planting times vary by area, but normally hay planted in Maricopa and Pinal counties in September or October wouldn't be ready for an initial cutting until early spring.
Dairies - which demand premium-quality alfalfa hay for their milk cows - also are sensitive to soaring hay costs, Teegerstrom said.
"The dairies are getting hit pretty hard with the feed prices," Teegerstrom said, adding that feed comprises 60 to 73 percent of the dairies' costs.
Industry observers are warning of possible hay shortages this winter.
"It's not a matter of if we're going to run out - it's when, I believe," Marana Feed's Ace Chicago said. "I've heard a lot of stories. I'm sure I can get hay, but it's a matter of how much I want to pay for it."
Feed mills may produce more pelletized hay, which could help offset a shortage of baled hay, but prices for bagged hay pellets run about 12 to 15 percent higher than for baled hay, he said.
Meanwhile, local horse-rescue organizations are seeing more abandoned animals.
"We're getting a lot more calls than we had, from people saying they can't afford to feed their horses anymore," said Judy Glore, president and founder of HEART (Happy Equine Acres Rescue and Therapy) of Tucson.
The higher hay prices mean the nonprofit - which took in 53 horses and adopted out 32 last year - has less money to pay for medications and veterinary care for its often emaciated horses, Glore said.
Did you know?
In 2001, a study by the University of Arizona pegged the annual value of the state's horse industries at more than $1 billion and estimated that Arizona "pleasure horse" owners spent $500 million to $600 million annually on horse care and maintenance.
The study estimated that up to 64,000 Arizona households owned one or more pleasure horses or were commercially involved in the horse industry and estimated that the number of horses in Arizona likely exceeded 170,000 head.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.