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Drought another blow to strapped horse owners

Amy Didominicis feeds handful hay Maddie horse Children's Farm Palos Park Illinois Friday September 21 2012.  Due summer drought

Amy Didominicis feeds a handful of hay to Maddie the horse at the Children's Farm in Palos Park, Illinois, Friday, September 21, 2012. Due to the summer drought this year the farm is 1,700 bales short and will have to buy the hay at inflated prices. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:25AM



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; 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, a nonprofit in Beecher. “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, as far south as Palos Park, 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.”

Forced to give them up

Friday morning, Pecho and his crew picked up an Arabian in Monee. Its owner, George Graniczny, who was forced to put a second horse down that day because it suffered severe arthritis, couldn’t afford to get the Arabian a companion, which it needs to maintain an even temperament.

“I can’t even afford to feed one; two is out of the question,” Graniczny said.

Graniczny and his wife, Christine, have kept horses since they moved onto their five-acre property 20 years ago.

“I’m on a fixed income now,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know how anybody’s making it today.”

Last resort, abandonment

Pecho said he has been inundated with calls from people wanting to give up their animals. The humane ones, he said, try to find a new home for them. The others simply abandon them.

He recently rescued a mare off Ashland Avenue in Beecher.

“They’re domesticated animals. Even if you leave them out in the open, they’re going to gravitate toward people,” he said.

Mark Kirby, who frequently travels to Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, has heard similar stories. He’s been told that horse owners had been arriving with animals and leaving with empty trailers.

“Now they’ve got a checkpoint set up,” he said.

Kirby, who owns Lonesome Dove Ranch in New Lenox, said things started to go south for competitive horse ropers and rodeo folks when the cost of gas jumped.

“Now with the economy being so bad, people can’t even sustain themselves, let alone the horses,” he said. The jump in the cost of hay is the last straw for many horse lovers, he said.

Boarding, feeding and providing proper veterinary and farrier care for a horse costs between $6,000 and $10,000 a year, he said.

Because his facility boards only retired horses who are owned by people he knows, he strives to give them the best feed available. That often means ordering from Canada, where he can buy a better quality hay that has high amounts of protein and nutrients, for less.

He orders big bales. Fifty-five of the 1,500-pound bundles will feed 10 horses a year, he said.

Affecting all livestock

Over at the Children’s Farm in Palos Park, the struggle is the same.

“Every day, someone calls to ask if they can donate their horse to us,” farm manager Amy Didominicis said.

Didominicis said the stables are full, and they’re dealing with feeding issues of their own.

Farm staffers bale their own hay, typically reaping enough to feed all the horses in the facility throughout the winter.

This year, she said, she’s expecting to come up short by 1,500 to 1,700 bales.

“In good years, we let the horses have an afternoon snack in the field,” she said. “This year, they’re just getting breakfast and dinner in their stalls.”

Didominicis already has received one shipment of hay and is locked in to two more. She, too, has been told supply is short and is likely to run even lower by midwinter.

“Everybody’s stockpiling,” she said. “People are desperate. And it will likely get worse.”

The situation is compounded by the devastated corn crop. Corn is used in much of the feed for cows, sheep and goats, as well.

Jeanette and Dick Durant have owned Bell View Acres, an equestrian training facility in Homer Glen, for 46 years. Jeanette said, “This is the first time a recession has hit us.”

The rising cost of feed has forced them to increase the monthly boarding fee for all 35 horses on their property by $30. That may go even higher come winter, she said.

Right now, she said, four or five owners who board their animals at Bell View are trying to sell them.

“In this economy, the last thing you need is a horse,” she said.



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