A shrinking U.S. horse population is playing a role in the lackluster horse hay sales reported by hay growers and dealers in many parts of the country during 2009. But other factors are likely having a bigger impact, says Anne Rodiek, an equine specialist with California State University, Fresno.

“A decline in horse numbers has no doubt contributed to a downturn in horse hay sales,” says Rodiek. “But the price of hay in last year’s hay market was likely the biggest cause of the downturn in horse numbers. More than one person has cited last year’s hay price as the last straw that led horse businesses to close their doors and convinced horse owners to either get rid of a horse or forego purchasing or raising another one.”

The severe downturn in the general economy has also been a factor. Along with buying less hay, many horse owners have made changes in the way they feed their animals. “(They’re) trying to stretch the hay they do buy farther,” says Rodiek. “They’re feeding more conservatively, by the flake instead of the bale, and avoiding any overfeeding. Uneaten hay is no longer allowed to contribute to bedding or to fill in muddy places in fields or paddocks.”

Other steps horse owners are taking to cut feed costs include buying bagged forage and/or feeding pellets out of a feeder or pail. “There’s less shrink than when feeding broken bales,” notes Rodiek. Some horses are being fed lawn clippings or are being shipped from urban areas to more rural settings where pasture or volunteer grass can be used for feed.

Long-term, Rodiek is optimistic about the future of the horse and hay industries in her part of the country. “Horses have to eat, and there are few alternatives to hay in the arid Western states,” she says. “People own horses because they like them and often will sacrifice many other luxuries before the horse. Even a moderate return to prosperity, coupled with reasonable hay prices, will likely cause these industries to rebound.”

Editor’s Note: Rodiek was one of the speakers at last week’s Western Alfalfa and Forage Symposium in Reno, NV.