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.”
Once the process gets going, each of Underwood’s trailers produces about 1,134 pounds of fodder a day.
They use about 335 gallons of water a day but can be set up to recycle much of that water, she said.
“Your 2.5 pounds of seed will become 18 pounds of biscuit,” she said.
Earlier this year, the drought nearly wiped out the first crop of grain planted by Sonoma hay farmer Norm Yenni.
Yenni, who owns Sears Point Farming Co. in Sonoma, said he planted his wheat seed in early November, as usual. But only a third of his seeds germinated, the result of the lack of winter rain.
“That seed was pretty much wasted,” he said.
His second planting — oats and barley — usually takes place in February and March. But this year, Yenni decided to start in January, taking a risk with Mother Nature’s rain schedule.
The gamble paid off.
“In mid-February, the rains that fell were the right amount at the right time for my soil,” Yenni said. “We ended up with an above-average crop on that late stuff.”
Yenni said he was lucky. For the hay industry as a whole, the drought has been a major disaster. “I don’t know about people north or south of here. I don’t think they fared nearly as well,” he said.