Horse Owners Challenged by Heat, Drought

Earlier this summer, triple digit temperatures had horse owners and their animals sweltering. Now owners remain hot under the collar as they worry about hay and feed availability with the persistent heat and ongoing drought.

In late June and early July temperatures rose to 100 degrees and higher in the Midwest, the Tennessee Valley, Kentucky, and elsewhere. Though rain began to fall in some areas in the Midwest since then, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sees little long-term relief. On July 16 NOAA reported that drought conditions continue to increase in both extent and intensity across much of the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, the Corn Belt region, the middle and lower Mississippi Valley, and much of the Great Plains.

Brian Fuchs, spokesman for the National Drought Mitigation Center, said 60% of the lower 48 states are under drought conditions. What's more, he said, the combined hot and dry conditions have already taken a toll on corn and hay crops and have left pastures parched.

"Pastures that got good (rain) soakings in the spring are brown and have gone dormant," Fuchs said. "It's doubtful that hay producers will get a third cut, and the corn crop will be reduced."

That's not news to Frank Bowman, executive director of the Horseman's Council of Illinois. According to Bowman, the Illinois corn crop has already failed due to high heat and scant rain. Meanwhile, hay fields and pastures are rapidly turning brown, he said, and the combination makes for high feed and hay prices for horse owners.

"Last year we (in Illinois) were sending hay to Texas," Bowman said. "Now, people who don't already have their hay up will have a hard time finding any."

Conditions are a bit better in south central Kentucky where several days of rain brought some relief. But Wayne County barn operator Kari Sullivan says she can only hope to get another cutting of hay.

"The rain made everything look like spring again, but we're still not sure we'll get more hay in," Sullivan said. "Other counties didn't get the rain we did and they're really worried."

Fuchs agrees there's reason to worry: "There may be small rain storms throughout the drought area, but it's doubtful that they will have any real effect. It does not look like either the heat or the drought will end soon."

When forage is expected to remain in short supply, Alessandra Pellegrini-Masini, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, clinical assistant professor of large animal internal medicine at the University of Georgia, previously told The Horse that horse owners should consider making adjustments. She suggests they supplement their animals' diets with Dengie Hay, a commercially produced heat-dried, short cut grass and alfalfa product that provides calories and proteins similar to high-quality hay. Introducing beet pulp and alfalfa cubes can also stretch hay supplies, she said.

"Bran can also be used, though I never recommend feeding a lot of bran because its calcium to phosphorus ratio can cause bone problems in horses," she cautioned.

Whichever fiber alternatives they use to stretch hay supplies during the persistent drought, Pellegrini-Masini reminded owners to bear their horses' sensitive systems in mind.

"Whenever you make a change in a horse's diet you should make it extremely slowly," she said. "Many of the problems we've seen have been the result of rapid changes in horses' diets because of the scarcity of local hay and forage."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.