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No horsin’ around: Hay, grain costing big bucks these days

Stable owner CarletHuntowatches one his horses Corinesome hay HuntoStables North AurorMonday September 24 2012 North Aurora. He has had same

Stable owner Carleton Huntoon watches one of his horses Corina eat some hay at Huntoon Stables in North Aurora on Monday, September 24, 2012 in North Aurora. He has had the same hay supplier for 20 years and right now the price and supply is good, grain and feed prices, however, have gone up thirty percent recently. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:09PM

Hay may be for horses, but the skyrocketing price of it has some of their owners wondering if this isn’t the last straw.

Horse owners across the Midwest already are seeing the effect of this year’s drought on the cost of hay and grain. Skyrocketing prices and threats of shortages are causing some to push the panic button. Some owners have become so desperate that they simply are abandoning the animals, a crime in Illinois, in open fields, forested areas or even along roads.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Tony Pecho, who runs Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County. “All we’ve been saying for the past few years is that the economy is bad, the economy is bad. Now the drought. People who’ve been hanging on by their fingernails are done, just done.”

An unusually warm spring, coupled with July’s oppressive heat and low levels of rainfall, have resulted in a stunted hay crop.

Pecho, who bales his own, said his yield is about one-quarter of last year’s. “Usually, I can get 6,000 bales from 60 acres,” he said. This year, he’s reaping between 1,000 and 1,500 bales, and that’s only because he was able to do a fourth cutting, thanks to late-season rainfall.

Triple the cost

Pecho is going to have to buy the rest of the hay. And soon, he said. Vendors are telling him they expect the crop to become very expensive by February or March.

The cost of a single bale on craigslist is $8 or $9 and up; last year’s average was $3. One bale can feed two to four horses a day.

Julie Schmitt, an Elgin hay re-seller, said a typical growing season allows for four cuttings, one near the end of May, two in summer, and a fourth in September if the weather holds. Most growers this year had to settle for two cuttings.

Schmitt has been traveling to northern Wisconsin, buying and loading bales and bringing them back to the Chicago area, where she sells them for about $8 each.

“I’ve heard that some vendors are sitting on their hay, waiting for the prices to go even higher,” she said.

As a result, Pecho and other horse farm owners are getting calls daily from people looking to unload the animals that once were considered family but now are deemed a luxury they can’t afford.

Typically, horse owners first try to sell, he said, “but the market is flooded, so they’re looking for a place to donate them.”

Stable pinch

Others who board horses said they also are already or expect to soon be feeling the pinch of high hay costs.

“I am doing OK so far, but I don’t know what will happen by mid-winter,” said Casey Ratay, owner of St. Charles Farm horse stables. Ratay said his stables provide boarding and lessons, as well as a place to host parties.

“I have another load coming in next week but I don’t know how much the prices will go up. I have had the same supplier for a long time. They take care of you,” he said.

As for the uncertainty in the horse stables industry, “There is nothing you can do — you have to go with the flow,” he said.

“The horses have to eat,” Ratay added.

Huntoon Stables in North Aurora provides riding lessons and training.

“We have never had an adverse effect other than prices fluctuating,” said Carleton Huntoon, 72, a third-generation operator of the family-owned stables.

“We have never had a time we could not get hay or a time it became so costly we could not buy it, but we are probably more fortunate than some. During my father’s years, we grew our own hay,” Huntoon said.

Huntoon said another stable owner told him Sunday she was having to import hay from New York state. “I assume the transportation adds tremendously to the cost,” he said.

Baythorne Farm Stables is a boarding and training center that has 35 horses on 15 acres in Sugar Grove. The horses are fed a basic diet of hay and grain, but the largest percentage of diet is hay.

“The big problem is the availability of hay. It is well out of our geographical area,” said Matthew Trynoski, owner and head trainer at Baythorne.

In the horse industry for 40 years, Trynoski said the high cost of fuel also causes the price to go up when hay is shipped from a distance.

“I am currently buying hay from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and it adds a lot to the cost,” he said.

Trynoski said he was fortunate to put in an order of hay in the spring and early summer from local suppliers at a normal cost, but once the summer heat and dry conditions set in there was no added hay for them to harvest for the rest of the summer.

“We have never seen a drought year combined with the high cost of fuel,” he said.

“The other equation is the grain market. Historically if we had a dry or poor yield, the grain prices were not greatly effected, but what is happening globally impacts our grain commodity market. We are looking at feed prices 80 to 100 percent higher. It is a double whammy.”

Huntoon said he has seen a 30 percent spike in grain costs since Aug. 1. “An increase of $3 per bag doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up.”

Correspondent Linda Girardi contributed to this story.

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