Clifford sits on bundles of grass hay as bundles of oat hay sit in the back Friday at Painted Gypsy Ranch.

Kay and Larry Weeks have 15 horse mouths to feed, so it’s no surprise that runaway hay prices are worrisome for the Gilroy couple whose vocation revolves around a passion for equines.

“I just like to make people happy with my horses,” said Kay, who along with her husband owns Painted Gypsy Ranch off Masten Avenue about seven miles north of downtown Gilroy.

In addition to looking after four horses that are boarded on their property, the Weeks own a stunning herd that includes nine Gypsy Vanners – a breed of draft horse marked by distinct coloring, long, silky manes and feathery feet. The couple enjoys sharing their handsome animals with the public by hosting play dates at their property, visiting the residents of Wheeler Manor in Gilroy or performing at the Renaissance Faire in Hollister.

But with hay and alfalfa prices hitting an industry high – spiking from $8 a bale 10 years ago to somewhere between $17 and $20 today, balancing their budget is getting harder for the Weeks. With each horse consuming between four to five bales of hay each month, the two run a pretty lean ship these days.

Putting things into perspective of a large-scale operation such as Red Fox Farms on New Avenue in Gilroy – which is home to 70 horses that consume roughly 25 tons of hay a month – farm co-owner Barb Larsen said she ordered $65,000 of hay in 2010-11. Boarding at Red Fox costs anywhere from $265 to $530 depending on accommodations, according to Red Fox’s website. At Painted Gypsy, horse owners pay between $350 to $400 for boarding fees and associated, optional services.

“We’d like to, but we haven’t,” said Kay, when asked if she and Larry would raise their boarding fees to mitigate the soaring cost of hay. “We don’t want to lose our clients. It’s better to make something than nothing.”

With only 6.43 inches of Gilroy rainfall in the last eight months, rising fuel costs, competing crops and ongoing demand from overseas markets in China and Japan, the Weeks are two of myriad local horse owners shelling out wads of cash for hay.

“There’s going to be a high demand for hay and it’s going to be worse than it is right now, people,” forewarned Janet Burback of Tilton Ranch in Morgan Hill. “There is not going to be enough hay in Santa Clara County for people to feed their horses.”

Whereas one acre generally yields about 50 hay bales, Burback said this year growers will probably get between 35 to 40 bales per acre due to the rain shortage. At 6.43 inches of rain since July 1, Gilroy is far below its normal rain year with 20.5 inches, according to Austin Cross with the National Weather Service in Monterey.

The hay drought is unsettling for Martha McNiel, who directs a riding camp for special-needs children called DreamPower Horsemanship in San Martin.

“We are gravely concerned,” she said. “It’s put us in a huge financial crisis.”

In 2009, McNiel said the 501(c)(3) nonprofit received 10 tons of donated hay. In 2010, 13 tons was donated. In 2011, “we didn’t have a single donated bale,” said McNiel, her tone weighted with a twinge of worry and disappointment.

The DreamPower ranch currently houses 21 horses, which McNiel is in charge of feeding. Where she once paid retail prices of $6 to $8 a bale for hay, “now I’m paying $18.90 a bale – wholesale,” she said. “And I’m thrilled to get it, because I couldn’t get it anywhere else.”

Folks such as McNiel are weathering the hay dilemma in different ways. Some are scaling back – like Renee Brundage at G&K Farms off Las Animas Avenue in Gilroy. Brundage recently downsized the hours of her employees in order to keep prices as low as possible for her patrons.

“Yeah, I am worried,” said Brundage. “People just can’t afford to feed their animals anymore.”

Her 40-year-old feed store called G&K Farms, which Brundage now runs by herself following the passing of her late husband four years ago, has been affiliated with its supplier for 35 years. If it weren’t for that relationship, finding an affordable wholesaler would be comparable to finding a needle in a haystack for Brundage.

“If you were someone who didn’t have those connections, it would be pretty hard for you to find hay,” she said. “People are trying to keep it for their regular customers.”

Prior to his death in 2008, Brundage remembers her husband saying, “one of these days, California is not going to grow enough hay for its own livestock.”

His prediction was telling.

Do a quick Internet search for “rising hay prices,” and reports of starving horses abandoned by their owners, struggling equine rescue associations and cattle ranchers selling their livestock come pouring in from all over the U.S.

“Each week I have three to four people calling me to donate their horses because they could no longer afford to keep them,” McNiel said. “We’re not taking any new horses until the price of hay goes down.”

Animal control officers are seeing the impact in Santa Clara County, where the average annual tally of stray horses jumped from four to 25 in the last year according to Albert Escobar, Animal Control Program Supervisor for the Santa Clara County. Escobar said the problem is even worse in Los Angeles, where animal control officers are discovering horse carcasses around the Los Angeles County.

“The bottom line is that people are finding the cheap way out and just dumping them loose,” said Escobar. “It’s sad.”

On the production spectrum of the situation, the crisis has prompted several South County farmers to switch up their crop menu. Whereas large-scale growers of hay and alfalfa typically employ a dry farming method (relying on rainfall to water their fields rather than irrigation), row crop farmers such as Dan Fiorio of Fiorio Farms off Watsonville Road and Ian Teresi of George Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill have the advantage of an in-house irrigation system.

“It’s never a big money-maker, but with the price the way it is, it’s kinda worth it,” said Teresi, who grows vegetables including bell peppers, squash, garlic and corn at Chiala.

Teresi said he already plants hay as a cover crop to add organic matter to his soil, prevent erosion and keep nutrients from washing away into rivers. However, he usually cuts the crop in mid-April and May to create a healthy “green manure” that is beneficial to the rest of his crops.

Given the recent hay scarcity, “I’m going to let the hay grow to maturity and harvest it,” said Teresi. “I have all this nice feed … I thought it would be kind of disrespectful to turn all this under when there’s guys having to go all the way to Nevada and crazy places to get hay.”

Teresi said he will probably reap around 7,500 bales of red oat hay from the 150 acres that he planted.

Fiorio, a third-generation farmer who grows mostly peppers, said he planted about 40 acres of hay this year. He’s expecting to sell around 2,000 bales to one buyer at $13 or $14 a piece.

In this climate, it looks like any extra production will help. Excluding alfalfa, Santa Clara County saw hay production decrease by 1,925 tons in 2010-11, according to the county’s 2010 Agricultural Crop Report. Of the 20,400 planted acres in Santa Clara County (excluding pasture and rangeland), 3,800 of that is alfalfa and various types of hay, according to Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Eric Wylde with the Santa Clara County Department of Agriculture.

Horse enthusiasts and dry crop farmers aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch, either. The cost of dairy hay climbed by 100 percent to more than $300 a ton in the last 15 to 20 years, according to Norm Beach, vice president of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association.

For ranchers and horse owners, Burback said now is the time to get your ducks in a row.

“Get all you need when you see it, because it won’t be there three months later,” said Burback. “It’s going to be expensive, and there’s not going to be very much of it.”

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