07/06/2007 12:00AM

Rising hay costs may go even higher


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Last week's thunderstorms have eased the Bluegrass area's severe drought, but forage experts and suppliers say horsemen can expect hay prices to climb sharply after this spring's unseasonable weather.

Temperatures climbed unusually high in February before plummeting into hard freeze, a weather cycle that caused this spring's first hay cutting in May to yield just 30 percent of last year's first cutting. Now, drought-plagued breeders are feeding more hay to make up for parched pastures - adding more demand on already short hay supplies. The result: rising costs.

Pope McLean Sr. of Crestwood Farm in Lexington estimated his hay expenses had gone up roughly $10,000 from about the end of March through early July.

"The pastures should be pretty lush now, but they aren't," he said. "So we're feeding more hay, especially to our mares with foals. I'd estimate we're feeding about four times more hay than normal for this time of year. We don't pass that on to our clients, either, so we're having to absorb that cost ourselves."

Those expenses will likely increase, according to University of Kentucky forage specialist Tom Keene. Keene said weather problems including drought in the South and floods in Western hay-producing states contributed to the nation's smallest hay crop in 50 years last year. That hay would have been fed in 2007. With this year's weather hampering hay producers again, Keene said, a horseman's best strategy is planning - and buying - ahead.

"Even if it were to start raining normally now, our chance of recovering those lost production tons is pretty much gone," he said. "My advice is to find someone you trust who can provide you with hay, lock in a price for a supply through next June, and, if you've got the facilities, go on and take delivery on it."

He also suggested feeding as efficiently as possible to conserve hay.

"I think people need to have their hay tested and sit down with nutritionists to formulate a ration, including sweet feed or growing formula for foals, so you're matching up the hay with the horses' needs and not just throwing out half a bale of hay in the mud," he said.

Breeders also may be forced to shop for hay farther afield, said Spendthrift manager Ned Toffey.

"If we want to maintain consistency in our hay quality, we'll probably have to look at Western hay," said Toffey. "It's irrigated, so it's not as prone to these environmental problems."

Toffey estimates Spendthrift's hay costs will rise about 40 percent. "But it's entirely possible it could fully double," he added, noting that the $180 to $200 per ton he usually pays to get hay from Ohio and Indiana could climb to $300 to $350 if he has to buy from Western states. Those prices include freight charges, which also could rise if fuel prices increase.

"You might be able to hold costs down by just getting what you can out of this region," Toffey said. "But our consistency and quality would likely be compromised, and that can lead to problems with secondary costs. If a $500,000 mare colics, your hay cost just went way up."

Drought hurts Gainesway greenery

Lexington's "severe drought" status under the Palmer Drought Severity Index has been causing some headaches for Ryan Martin, horticulture director at Gainesway Farm in Lexington. In addition to being a successful breeding farm, Gainesway also has been designated an arboretum by the American Public Garden Association.

Martin doesn't have to worry about pasture or hay, but he is in charge of some 1,500 acres of decorative plants, floral displays, and tree collections.

Martin's six-person department has been devoted almost entirely to watering and weeding during the drought, he said, meaning that other chores like potting and planting have been secondary priorities. More damaging than the drought, though, was the cycle of heat and freezing weather Lexington saw earlier this spring.

"We lost 31 of our 32 Japanese maples because of that," Martin said, referring to a cluster of trees at the farm's entrance. "I'm still trying to decide what to replace them with, but it will be something hardier.

"Somebody in my position has to be prepared," he added. "As an estate planter, I have to think that 40 years from now this climate could be a lot hotter and the winters could be shorter. This is Kentucky teaching people who grow things a lesson about hardiness."

* Fasig-Tipton Kentucky will unveil its remodeled pavilion at its July 16-17 yearling sale. "Essentially, we've given the building a complete facelift," said chief operating officer Boyd Browning, who said the upgrades included replacing floors, wall coverings, seats, and lights and renovating restrooms.

* Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga select yearling sale will feature a larger catalog this year. The auction, set for Aug. 6-7 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., will include 214 horses, up from 180 last year.

* The Japan Racing Horse Association's annual yearling and foal sale begins Monday at Hokkaido's Northern Horse Park. The three-day auction, which last year set a world foal record of about $5.2 million for a King Hamehameha filly, has cataloged 157 yearlings and 329 foals this year.

* Grade 1-placed stakes winner Bel's Starlet has been pensioned at the Our Mims Retirement Haven in Paris, Ky. The 20-year-old Bel Bolide mare started 46 times, winning nine stakes and earning $863,802 in her career. She also set a 6 1/2-furlong Santa Anita course record of 1:11.63 in 1992. Bel's Starlet arrived at Our Mims on July 5 in a joint effort with the Kentucky Equine Humane Center.