BEND, Ore. - (Update: Adding KTVZ.COM Poll; vet speaks on whether horses could eat hemp instead)
A mix of bad weather and Oregon farmers switching out hay for hemp has caused a major hay shortage on the High Desert.
The shortage has hit many horse ranches that rely on hay during the winter months.
Winter is a crucial time for horses. Because of the cold weather, there is no grass, so the horses rely on hay grown during the summer.
"Your pastures are covered with snow or frozen, and there's no nutrition in that," said Gary English, the owner of Alpenridge Farms east of Bend, said Tuesday. “You have got to feed them during the winter months. You can't just put them out in the pasture. Most people will use supplements, but that's not the major forage for a horse. A horse has to have some hay."
According to the Humane Society of the United States a 1,000-pound horse will eat 15 to 20 pounds of hay a day which is close to three tons a year.
English has around 30 horses on his ranch. If he wasn’t considered a long-term customer with his hay supplier, he said he would have expected to pay at least $3,000 more this year.
The 2018 Farm Bill helped legalize hemp and broadened farmers' ability to grow the crop.
According to Frank Maricle of Maricle Land and Livestock in Bend, hemp has replaced hay on about 10,000 acres across Central Oregon. That would account for 40,000 fewer tons of hay available to area farms and reaches.
Maricle, who grows both hay and hemp, said he believes the prospects for hemp are, at the moment, greater than hay.
"The economics of hemp is just so much better than the hay,” he said. "So everyone wants to cash in on the hemp boom. Everyone is using up their acres and putting it into hemp, either leasing it to hemp growers or growing it themselves."
Maricle added that his hay supply will be sold out by November, which is earlier than usual. Last year, Maricle said, it cost $250 a ton locally for hay, and he thinks the price will rise to more than $300 a ton. That could cost horse ranches thousands of dollars each year.
Could horses eat hemp instead of hay?
Veterinarian Tyler Newton, DVM of Bend Equine Medical Center said, "Hemp is, I think, a little bit probably too high in a specific type of carbohydrate called lignin that horses and really most other animals can't digest."
Newton said hemp likely will be a supplement for horses in the future, but can't be a base feed.