Billings: A standing invitation to help with hay

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People see horses grazing in the pasture and think what a beautiful sight it is, and it is — serene and pastoral. Pastoral – pasture…get it? But not all horses have pasture. The ones that don’t get fed hay — grass hay, grass/alfalfa mix or straight alfalfa. And in some cases, that is better. Early spring grass may be too rich for some horses, and late in the season, before the snow, the grass is depleted of much of its vitamins and minerals.

Hey — so what’s hay anyway? It isn’t straw. That’s for sure.

Hay is grass, legumes or other herbaceous plants that have been cut, dried and stored for use as animal fodder, particularly for grazing livestock such as cattle, horses, goats and sheep. Hay is also fed to pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs.

Grass hay can be made of many different grasses — clover, brome, orchard, timothy (yum yum), depends where the hay is grown — and many more variations. And grass hay may have some alfalfa in it; all depends on how the field was cleaned, planted and cultivated.

Hay is complicated.

The yield is affected by the amount of water it receives, and in a drought year there are problems. In a wet season, there are also problems, like this year not being able to cut until late. Cutting hay is also complicated. It’s cut and lies in the field at least one day to dry. However, if it rains after it is cut, it is usually ruined (at least for horses). It can then be turned to dry, if it is not too wet, and wait another day. It usually is a three day event from cutting to baling. Any time along the way, the hay can be ruined. It is a fine, delicate dance between man and nature.

Hay is complicated.

While some folks think all you have to do is throw some hay down on the ground for the horses and that’s good enough as long as they have hay and water. Well for some of us, that just isn’t enough. Come feed with me one night and you’ll see. And as I’ve said,

Hay is complicated.

Each of my horses may, on any given night, be fed differently. I have a few who are easy keepers, so I must be careful: not too much alfalfa. Then I have one who only gets grass hay and one who only gets alfalfa hay. You get the picture. Also, their supplements may be different on any given day. Gus gets special stuff for his hooves, while Scout gets special stuff for his skin. Thunder gets special stuff because he has only one back tooth….and Ryah has loose teeth. Oreo gets special stuff for her digestive tract and Dakota — well he doesn’t have any issues. Pockets gets special stuff for her joints and Libby, well she’s only 4. She’s the one who gets the grass hay. Eating hay for her was different. First time she had hay was when she was rounded up on that fateful or blessed day — depends on your perspective. I know what mine is.

So the wild horses, what do they eat? They don’t get hay, I can tell you that. This year, due to the rain, grass grew out in Spring Creek basin. But in addition to this year’s green grass the horses have lots of other different grasses, plus shrubby stuff. They usually don’t eat trees, but on occasion will eat bark when they don’t have enough of the other things. Most of what they eat there are grasses I have never heard of. Indian rice grass, grama, galleta, alkali sacacton, three-awn, needle and thread, cheat grass. Heavier forage like four-wing saltbrush, shadscale, snakeweed and of course greasewood rounds out their diet. At this time of year, much of the green grass is now gold, but still edible. So you can see —

Grass is also complicated.

I’ve been buying hay since 1994. At that time I think I was buying a bale of hay for about $2.50. Today, I am paying $8 to $10 a bale. Wreaks havoc with the hay budget. One year I even had a contract on a hay field. It didn’t pan out for me because while the hay was ready to cut in August, it was cut Oct. 4. Why? The guy I hired fell off the wagon…and I’ll just leave it at that.

I hope that this little thesis on the subject of hay will get you thinking about the horses in the pasture and the horses in stalls and paddocks. Lots to think about.  And if you are done thinking, get physical and volunteer to feed with me one night. You have a standing invitation.

Alice Billings is a resident of Ridgway, Colorado, a painter, an artist, an author and friend to animals everywhere.