Alaska is in the midst of a hay shortage. The weather has a lot to do with it, and many of Alaska's hay farmers are seeing crops about half the normal size. Most hay is a form of grass cut or harvested in July and late August.
Hay is a seemingly simple product: dried grass. But its importance to farm and horse owners cannot be overstated. Hay is a staple food for the animals and, in Alaska, it can cost as much as an average car payment to feed a horse for a month. That is, if enough hay can be located.
Farms in Fairbanks, Delta and throughout Southcentral already saw a July harvest far smaller than in years past. The late August harvest isn't looking much better, either. Some of the estimated 20,000 Alaska horses are fed hay that's imported from the Lower 48, but even that source is becoming problematic. A drought in the Pacific Northwest has driven hay prices up. That means horse owners and hay farmers on the financial edge are feeling pinched.
Blame a wet fall last year and a hot, dry summer for the poor production. August's steady rainfall is probably too late to make much of a difference.
"Although most areas of the state are getting some much-needed moisture, it may be, 'too little, too late' for many of the hay farmers," said Daniel Consenstein, Alaska executive director for the Farm Service Agency.
Blame it on winter chill, and summer heat
Many factors affect crops. Blaming the hay shortage on summer heat and little rain is a bit simplistic. The National Resources Conservation Service tests hay farms at eight locations across the state. All are significantly down in hay production compared to last year – some by 50 percent.
Agronomist Casey Dinkle, who manages the hay field tests, said the cause of the shortage began last fall. "It was wet and we had a hard, deep frost, which was compounded by a lack of early snow cover," Dinkel said.
That lingered because of a late break-up throughout most of Alaska, keeping the ground cold into the first few weeks of the traditional May planting time.
"The fields I checked this spring were lagging 2 to 3 weeks behind," Dinkel said.
And while most Alaskans enjoyed an unusually hot, dry summer, hay farmers did not. The lack of moisture prevented fertilizer from getting dissolved into the ground, adding to what had already become a difficult growing season.
Year-round feed source for horses
Horses can graze in pastures, but most are fed hay and pellets – a combination of hay, oats and grains. Once snow covers the ground, hay becomes the main food source. The cost per horse can vary, but averages about $200 per month for two large bales of hay.
That cost is rising, as Alaska farmers struggle to come up with enough to fill their orders.
The shortage of good hay is affecting most Alaska horse owners, from commercial ride and trail operations to people on Anchorage's Hillside who own a couple of the animals. Hay prices have risen 10 to 20 percent since 2012.
"It's affecting me big time," said Joshua Hale, who during the summer months has some 20 horses to feed. Hale owns and runs Alaska Horse Adventures, using his horses to take tourists and adventurers on rides throughout Southcentral Alaska. He fears people having difficulty finding and paying for hay will have to give their horses away or surrender them to a local equine rescue group.
Some will hang up their spurs
Heather Robb also worries. She is on the board of directors of Alaska Equine Rescue, a group that boards and rehabilitates horses that are either surrendered by their owners or confiscated by Animal Control. Robb said her group recently received a horse after its owner gave it up because he couldn't pay for the feed anymore. Comet, is a 14-year-old male Arabian cross. When he came to Robb, Comet was thin, with skin hanging and ribs protruding. After two months of care, Comet has gained weight and is starting to feel healthier. But, partly because of the dwindling supply of hay, Robb said she expects more horses to be given up to her group.
"In the last week, I have gotten three calls from people who said they may have to give up their horses this fall, because they either can't find enough hay, or they can't afford it," Robb said.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com