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Hay is for horses, until it's gone

Erin Tomson loads hay
Lauren Paterson/Northwest News Network
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Erin Tomson loads hay to feed the horses at her family farm in Pullman, WA.

Most of us have already noticed an uptick in the cost of groceries. There are a variety of reasons for that. One is the price of hay.

When Dee Tomson began boarding horses in the early 1980s, she paid around $35 dollars a ton. That included loading the hay in the barn with a rack and draft horses.

“And now hay is anywhere from $200 to $400 a ton. And then you have to pay for somebody to put it in the barn,” she said.

That somebody includes machines that need fuel.

“It’s all mechanized and takes a lot of effort, which is very expensive. Anybody that buys fuel knows,” she said. “That directly affects the price of both hay and grain. So it’s becoming very expensive to maintain any kind of livestock.”

Dee and Erin Tomson with horse in Pullman
Lauren Paterson/Northwest News Network
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Dee and Erin Tomson stand near Dee’s horse at their home in Pullman, WA. The family says they have plenty of space, but can’t afford more horses because of the price of hay.

Tomson is feeding hay and grain to her horses at her property in Pullman, Washington. She could feed them something else, something less expensive, but decided against it.

“We swallow the extra cost, because it’s that good quality feed that makes healthy animals. And if you skimp on what you’re feeding him, you’re going to increase your vet bills, or you’re going to have your horses die,” said Tomson.

Josh Callen knows hay. He runs the website known as The Hoyt Report, tracking market analysis and insights for the US hay market.

As he talks to me he’s visiting a farm in southern Idaho. He tells me the long, wet spring made it hard to get a good first cutting.

“But the hay that did go up, obviously, the prices were really strong. And then once we got into second cutting, in late June versus July, the prices just jumped like $30, $40 a ton on the export side.”

And then, in early August, hay exporters started getting pushback from their overseas customers and the prices started going down again, which makes it hard for farmers to make any money.

He says there’s plenty of middle and low grade hay on the market, but what customers are looking for is the good stuff.

Customers in places like Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

“The hay that has grown in the Pacific Northwest is some of the highest quality in the world. And so it is in high demand in key export markets,” said Steve Balaski, Director of Business Development at Northwest Seaport Alliance. His job is to manage products being shipped from the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

Balaski said hay has not escaped the supply chain issues. He says hay exports are down almost 24% for the year.

He says one reason for that is that ships sometimes skip ports in order to get back on schedule. Or, they’ll only pull in for a limited time. Balaski says he’s working with ocean carriers to figure out how to get ships back on schedule, and get more capacity for exporting products like hay from the Northwest.

Before the pandemic, he says an import container cost between $1,500 and $2,000.

Balaski said that price has now tripled. That hurts because hay’s profit margin is so small.

“Any additional cost that the ag exporter has to bear goes directly to their bottom line,” said Balaski.

The price of hay is also dependent on things like fertilizer, labor, and the costs of production. Growers in Washington state are now mandated by law to pay overtime to farm workers.

If hay growers can’t ship their products, they’re less likely to grow it next year.

Hay harvesting in Pullman
Lauren Paterson/Northwest News Network
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Hay being harvested outside Pullman, Washington in mid September 2022. How much hay growers produce might determine the price of other agricultural products down the line.

One guy who’s likely to continue growing hay is Andrew Eddie. He’s the president of the Washington Hay Growers Association and farmer of 1300 acres of alfalfa, timothy hay, and orchard grass in Moses Lake.

He said the higher cost of hay is likely to have downstream effects for other agricultural products.

“You’re gonna see a lot of price increases on certain things, like we already kind of see with food, vegetables, things like that, I think they’re going to be higher,” said Eddie. “As for feed costs, milks, probably gonna be a little more expensive, beef’s probably going to be a little more expensive.”

The fourth cutting for hay is usually finished by the end of September, or early October. Depending on how that goes, we might all be paying a little more at the grocery store.