California drought sends hay prices soaring

  • Norm Yenni, loads stacks of baled hay onto a flatbed truck at the Sears Point Farming Co. near Sonoma on Saturday, August 30, 2014.

In the past 10 years, Tracy Underwood has seen the price of hay more than double, from about $9 a bale to upwards of $20.

While some of that increase was a result of the recession, California’s withering drought has driven hay prices to historic highs.

Underwood, who used to spend about $400 a day on hay to feed about 100 horses at the Santa Rosa Equestrian Center, has started growing her own fodder to cut costs. The switch to hydroponic-grown fodder has helped slice her hay bill in half.

“I’m saving $200 a day on hay costs,” Underwood said.

She still feeds hay to her horses for dinner, especially her thoroughbreds, which tend to eat a lot. But the majority of her horses now get other fodder for breakfast and lunch.

Underwood’s solution is one way North Coast residents are dealing with skyrocketing hay prices. With the California drought now in its third year, less rain has meant fewer acres of oat, barley and wheat pastures, which has fueled a sharp jump in hay prices.

West Santa Rosa dairyman Doug Beretta said he recently sold 40 milk cows to a dairy operation in Idaho to offset the rising cost of hay, which he buys for his milk cows and his young stock. He also found a ranch to lease where he’s able to graze some of his livestock, reducing the amount of hay he needs to buy.

A load of milk cow hay, about 26 tons, costs about $10,000 and lasts about 20 days when pasture for grazing is available. When no pasture is available, Beretta’s family dairy business goes through a load every 10 days at a cost of about $30,000 a month.

“It cuts into your profitability,” Beretta said.

Underwood sought to control her costs by purchasing a hydroponic fodder system in 2012. The system is made up of two climate-controlled trailer-like structures, each housing a series of trays and equipped with sprinklers and lighting. Barley seed is placed inside the trays and takes about six days to grow into a rectangular clump of feed, known as “biscuit.”

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