With hay prices moving steadily upward in many parts of the country, Krishona Martinson is advising recreational horse owners to think about their feeding strategies for upcoming fall and winter months.

The following are ideas from Martinson, University of Minnesota Extension equine specialist, that growers may want to pass along to horse-owning customers:

Hay is the backbone of a horse's diet. "As a general guideline, forage should be used to meet a minimum of two-thirds of an adult idle horse's nutritional needs," says Martinson. Rather than backing off on the amount of forage being fed due to price increases, she encourages horse owners to carefully evaluate how much hay they'll need for the season. "Figure that a 1,000-lb horse will eat about 25 lbs of hay per day and multiply that by the number of days of feeding," she tells horse owners. "If the end result doesn't match up with horse owners' feed budgets, they may have to consider other alternatives, including increasing pasture, feeding concentrates or reducing the number of horses they have."

First cutting is great forage for horses. Many horse owners shy away from buying first-crop hay because they believe it isn't as nutritious for their animals, says Martinson.

"Hay suppliers need to explain to them that stage of maturity at cutting has a lot more to do with nutritional value than the cutting. First cutting, while often more fibrous than later cuttings, can be an ideal feed for a recreational horse." She encourages horse owners buying from hay growers with three-cut-per-year systems to build inventories by selecting one-third crop from each of the three cuttings. For horse owners buying from grass-hay growers who take two cuttings a year, she advocates splitting purchases 50:50. "It helps even out costs for the horse owner, and it cuts down the risk associated with weather."

Forage consistency is essential. "Constantly changing hay types (from grass to legume or vice versa) can lead to horse-health problems, specifically colic," says Martinson. "If horse owners find themselves in a position where they have to switch from one hay type to another, we recommend that they make the change gradually over a two-week period."

Investing in additional hay storage can pay dividends for horse owners. Most recreational horse owners have storage for 30 days of hay or less, Martinson notes. They have to buy hay on the spot market or at auction several times during the feeding season.

"It's a price issue in years when hay supplies are tight because prices tend to go up as supplies dwindle," says Martinson. "It can also be a consistency issue, because they're forced to take whatever is available on the market or at the auction at the time. Being able to buy large quantities of hay from a single supplier cuts down on both of those risks."

When prices rise sharply, it's not unusual for hay growers to hear complaints from horse-owner customers about price gouging. She encourages producers to be patient.

"When you're selling hay to dairies or beef producers, you can assume that they understand how a variety of factors (fluctuations in input costs, changes in national hay acreages, rising grain prices, weather challenges, etc.) go into setting a price because they deal with the same kinds of things in their businesses. But most recreational horse owners don't have any kind of farming background. You may find that it pays to spend time trying to educate them about what's going on in the business."