We have not had the amount of snow that we should have had by this time of year. Since we live in the headwaters of the North Platte River, I’m sure there are lots of people and municipalities and states downstream who are worried about our poor snowpack. The concern most on my own mind at the moment is the price and availability of hay for my ponies, since if there’s little snow, there’s little irrigation water which then produces little hay.
You would think, since I’ve lived in a hay-producing county for over ten years that I would have a firm grasp on the hay supply for my ponies. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. For a number of years, I bought hay from a neighboring ranch that did not fertilize their hay meadows. They were contemplating organic certification at the time, and I was happy to get very nice hay from them. Unfortunately they determined that organic hay wasn’t a product they were interested in, and they eventually contracted their haying out to crews that cut it wet and sprayed it with preservatives as they baled it. I didn’t feel that sort of haying practice was in the best interests of my ponies, so I went looking elsewhere for hay.
I then began buying my hay from another ranch a bit farther away that also didn’t fertilize. The ranch owner breeds and raises horses and doesn’t believe that fertilized hay is good for equines. The hay from that ranch was nice, but then their ranch foreman left who had been responsible for the good quality, and again I went looking elsewhere.
For two years I bought hay from a man who said he specialized in horse hay. I found his hay to be over-priced and of lower nutritional content, on top of which he was nearly an hour away despite being in the same county, so I went looking again. By now we were in the midst of the recession, and tight times dictated that I get hay closer to home that was more affordable. I began buying hay from a neighboring rancher who had always fertilized the meadows that he worked. I admired his family operation from afar and appreciated his flexibility, letting us buy hay as we needed it rather than writing an enormous check in the fall.
It was shortly after I began feeding this fertilized hay that Mya the Wonder Pony began serial colicking. It took me awhile to see the coincidence, but once I did I began pondering fertilized hay. Was it the right hay for my ponies? I have a very vivid memory from several years ago when I had my senior Fell mare Beauty and her foal Rose boarded two hours away at a friend’s at lower elevation for fall grazing. When the grass began to run out, I bought Beauty a small bale of local hay that was so green as to obviously have come from fertilized ground. Beauty would have nothing to do with it. She distinctly preferred to graze the tidbits left in the pasture than even contemplate eating hay from that bale, despite it being much greener than the dried fodder available in her field.
Being an avid researcher, I got on the internet and tried to find information about the relative health effects for equines of fertilized and unfertilized hay. I couldn’t find anything conclusive. I then asked my husband, who has been observing the growth of plants and trees his entire life, what he thought the difference might be between fertilized and unfertilized hay. His response made so much sense: fertilizer makes things grow more vigorously; grasses for instance will grow taller. For grasses to remain standing when they are taller, they must have more fibrous stems.
I also decided to ask my Fell Pony mentor in England his opinion about the appropriate hay for ponies. He was quick with an answer: unfertilized hay is best. When I asked him why, his answer also made a lot of sense: the ponies have evolved with unfertilized hay, and their digestive systems can’t change fast enough to deal with the changes in hay that fertilizer brings. His answer reminded me of one of the findings in David Anthony Murray’s research on semi-feral Fell Ponies: the ponies prefer the fine grasses over the coarser ones. (1)
About the time that I finally took Mya to the hospital late last year after yet another colic, I read an article in Equus magazine about caring for older equines. “The importance of forage in a horse’s diet doesn’t change as he ages, but his ability to chew coarse, fibrous hay or pasture grasses might. He may do better with a softer, more digestible mix.” (2) I immediately connected this statement with my husband’s insight about the difference between fertilized and unfertilized grasses, concluding that unfertilized hay might be best of older equines.
Last fall, the neighboring rancher who had been supplying me with hay decided to play the market, dramatically increasing his prices. Once again I was forced to search for hay for my ponies. Fortunately, the ranch foreman at the horse breeding ranch had returned to his old job, and he offered us affordable and unfertilized hay. I was able to photograph hay samples side by side from the fertilized and unfertilized hay, and indeed the stems in the fertilized hay appear coarser than the stems in the unfertilized hay. For this winter, at least, I’m happy to have unfertilized hay again for my ponies.
Fertilizer is ubiquitous, of course, in agriculture these days. Few people even contemplate growing any crop without it. If and when I ever have my own hay ground again, I hope to run some experiments. Several years ago we pastured turkeys on the hay meadow after it had been cut, and the next year the grass was greener and more lush. The grass wasn’t necessarily taller but came in thicker, making me think that pastured poultry on hay ground might be an interesting approach. I also want to experiment with an organic fertilizer to see if it will have a similar effect as the pastured poultry, creating lusher but not necessarily taller and coarser hay.
1) Murray, David Anthony. The Fell Pony: grazing characteristics and breed profile – a preliminary assessment. http://www.grazinganimalsproject.org.uk/breed_profiles_handbook , Fell Pony PDF, p. 2.
2) Baril, Karen Elizabeth. “The Care Older Horses Need,” Equus, issue 420, September 2012, p. 35.
(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2013