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Farms searching far, paying high to feed animals

TOWN OF JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP)--On a recent Saturday morning, the horses at Spirit Horse Equine Rescue ate hay from La Crosse and alfalfa from Oklahoma.

That's a pretty exotic diet for animals living in a county that produced 40,000 tons of alfalfa hay in 2011.

But that was then. Now, dairy and livestock producers and groups such as Spirit Horse are looking farther afield for animal feed

"Our feed costs have doubled, almost tripled,'' Dee Dee Golberg, founder and director of Spirit Horse, told The Janesville Gazette ( http://bit.ly/VTpkSm )

Golberg feeds 18 horses, ponies, miniature horses and mules at her home and education center in the town of Janesville. Another 22 horses live at foster homes. The cost of feeding 40 horses is about $830 a week.

"We have been managing week to week,'' Golberg said. "Most weeks we make it.''

And the weeks they don't?

Golberg pays. Or one of her board members pays. Or it goes on a credit card.

"It's not like we can put them on half-rations,'' Golberg said.

Rock County's dairy and livestock producers have always been able to count on a local supply of corn and soybeans for animal feed. The county routinely ranks first in the state in soybean production and in the top five for corn production, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer production.

If local farmers ever ran short of quality hay, they turned Dane, Green, Lafayette and Iowa counties.

Each of those counties routinely produces more than 90,000 tons of alfalfa hay per year, according to state statistics.

Last summer was different.

The area stretching from the Iowa border to the middle of Walworth County, was in extreme drought for almost all of the growing and harvest seasons.

Corn crops failed. Fields that survived saw reduced yields and lower quality. Soybeans fared slightly better, but all crops were affected, including alfalfa hay and other crops used for forage.

Farmers who had livestock were hit hard--twice.

Traditionally, such farmers will contract part of their crop for cash and keep part of it for their own animals.

This year, the crops they were able to grow had to be used to fill those contracts. That forced them to buy feed at exorbitant prices for their animals.

They did not see a corresponding increase in the price of meat or milk. Last fall, the price of corn reached a record high of $8.49 a bushel. In December of 2011, baled alfalfa hay cost $130 a ton.

In December 2012, sellers on hayexchange.com were offering alfalfa hay at prices ranging from $250 a ton in Wyoming to $350 a ton in Washington County, Wisconsin.

Here's what that translates to on a smaller scale: Golberg used to pay about $3 per bale for "horse hay''--hay that's about 50 to 75 percent alfalfa. Now she pays $6 or $7 a bale.

Local sellers on hayexchange.com are offering it for $8.50 to $10 a bale.

Golberg has driven as far as La Crosse for hay. She's not the only one hitting the road for hay.

John and Cindy Reynolds own Reynolds Feed and Supply near Dodgeville. Every Saturday, they host a hay auction.

Usually buyers come from about a 100-mile radius.

"We have more people come from further distances,'' John Reynolds said. "Right now, we have people coming up from Illinois.''

And people come with trailers, ready to buy.

Reynolds said part of his job is making sure they have enough hay to supply customers.

"People are coming every week and taking it right home to feed their animals,'' he said. "I hate to have them come and not have anything to take home.''

Prices have about doubled, he said. Golberg has looked at the cost of feed from every angle. She decided to buy chaff hay from Hammil Farm Center, Milton. Chaff hay is hay that's been chopped and sprayed with molasses. It's also $16 a bale.

"We looked at it a few years ago and it was just too expensive,'' Golberg said.

But this year, the quality of the hay crop isn't as good. And when Golberg calculates the nutritional value_and the price_of the hay she is able to buy, it comes out close to even.

The prices mean Golberg has had to make choices.

"We have turned away 20 to 30 horses for every one we accept,'' Golberg said. "It's so difficult to pick and choose.''

Every animal at Spirit Horse has a story.

Ella, a white Arabian mare, came from an elderly owner who decided he could no longer care for the animal. His plan was to dig a hole, shoot the horse and push her in.

Ella would be the "perfect horse for a little girl,'' Golberg said.

"She could be shown in 4-H,'' Golberg said. "She'd love to be in the limelight.''

Another horse was deemed "impossible to load in a horse trailer,'' and yet another was described as "crazy'' by both its owner and the owner's vet. Both have become manageable--and adoptable--under Golberg's care.

Yet other animals have come from good owners who lost their homes or their farms.

These owners didn't want to give up their animals, but simply couldn't afford to keep them.

Date: 1/14/2013

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