Forage producers could tap into a huge domestic market for their hay — if they drop their bale sizes.
“The horse industry purchases more forage than any other sector in agriculture,” said Les Burwash, manager of horse programs for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
“I’m not saying we use more — we buy more. Of the hay that’s fed, at least two-thirds or three-quarters is purchased. A lot of the producers involved in the industry do not raise much hay, if any.”
Alberta is home to between 200,000 and 250,000 horses — one-third of Canada’s horse herd — and 600 stables, and “one of the things that stables do is buy hay,” said Burwash, who spoke at the Alberta Forage Industry Network AGM in mid-March.
Horses need to eat between 1.5 to two per cent of their body weight per day in forage, or roughly 20 pounds daily.
But the horse industry has specific criteria, he added.
“The horse industry wants quality hay,” said Burwash. “It has to be put up in a relatively early- to mid-maturity range.”
It’s also “absolutely critical” that hay be free of dust and mould.
“Horses do not tolerate moulds very well. We see a huge increase in respiratory problems in horses when we feed dusty or mouldy hay,” said Burwash. “You’ve got to be putting it up drier than 17 per cent, or we see mould.”
Alsike is also “out of the picture” for the horse industry.
“The horses develop a photosensitization when consuming alsike clover while grazing and in hay, so you’re going to be asked if the hay has alsike clover in it. If the answer is ‘yes,’ we’re not interested.”
Young horses and lactating mares need alfalfa hay harvested at early to mid-maturity, while performance horses and yearlings do better with mid-maturity alfalfa hay, with protein levels that are 12 to 16 per cent. Mid- to late-maturity grass hay is better for recreation and overweight horses.
But form is just as important as substance in the equine industry, said Burwash.
“The big round bales, the big square bales, and the mid-size bales — the majority of our people doesn’t want them,” he said. “You’re not going to sell a whole bunch of that to our industry. We don’t have big enough tractors. It’s that simple.”
The horse industry will buy bigger bales as a last resort, said Burwash, but “if you can move down in size, it sure as heck would help our industry.
“The products of choice are either going to be the 1x1x2 cubes or the small squares,” he said.
“I get that you guys want to put it up in the big rounds or the big squares because it’s more economical, but when it comes to our industry, it’s a whole bunch simpler to use the small squares or the cubes, and that’s what the industry is going to be asking for.”
The horse industry would pay a premium for smaller bales, if it meant better access to feed they could use, he said.
“You guys are in the driver’s seat because you’ve got the product. Just give it to us in the form that we can use it.”