Monday, October 29, 2007


When I first came back to Montana, I had a job with a local ag newspaper. (I’m not a total self-destroyer!) I knew I was taking a big pay cut, but I thought that this minimum wage job would be enough to carry me to Social Security. What I didn’t know was that the newspaper was not owned by the man who hired me, that he knew at the time that it was likely to be sold, and that he had already begun planning for a different newspaper that would not include me. Good Methodist that he is, he didn’t worry me with all this.

The people who bought that first paper have never canceled my subscription -- I don’t know why. So I’m accumulating quite a bit of information about farming and livestock, which is very welcome. Not that I’m going into ranching, but I like knowing about such things, esp. since I live in the middle of it all. Most of the info is simply downloaded from ag extension agents at ag university websites anyway. But I wouldn’t know to look for a lot of it in the first place and would not have it gathered up in newspaper form.

So here are some things for you to ponder about horse hay. Horses are meant to graze all day on the grasslands, in herds. You can tell anatomically because they have small stomachs, ordinary small intestines, and an extra big “hind gut.” This is quite unlike cows, which have a series of stomachs that can digest almost anything, a kind of distillery on legs. (They say cows are always a little drunk, which explains a lot.) We interfere with horses by keeping them for pleasure (ours, not theirs) in small enclosures where we must bring them the grass in the form of hay. They are totally dependent on our decisions about what and when to eat and our faithfulness in following through.

Dennis Cash, the MSU Extention Forage Specialist, points out these basics:
1. Hay and other roughage provide both nutrients and satiety for your horse. (If they don’t get the right stuff in the right amount, they start chewing on their corral and stall.)
2. Different ages, classes and workloads of horses require different levels of nutrients from the hay. Sorta like people.
3. All hay is not the same. Here’s where a kid cannot be in charge. Knowing what sources have high protein is pretty complicated and a kid is going to be tempted to overfeed “good stuff” thinking of it as a kindness. It might be a temptation to throw a lot of early bloom alfalfa hay in there, enough to keep the horse eating all day. Result: fat horse. And then there’s always budget to consider, the eternal tradeoff between cost and quality.

Cash says: “An inexpensive hay analysis will tell you the level of crude protein, total digestible nutrients, calcium, phosporus, magnesium and potassium in the hay.” I can’t remember us ever doing such a thing. We just tried not to buy moldy hay and Bob preferred grass to alfalfa because Mr. Stone, on whose ranch he learned most of what he knew about horses, always had that preference.

I think that our horses survived mostly because they were on pasture most of the time. We did supplement with hay in winter. We'd take hay and our lunch out to the field on cold snowy days so we could watch them eat. Once Bob was waving his peanut butter sandwich around and Zuke took a big bite out of it.

Knowing what hay to buy from whom was always a problem since we didn’t buy in much quantity. In the early days there wasn’t much money. We could store it inside to keep it from being moldy, but, even so, hay from the first cutting in this country is likely to have been rained on or at least to have lain on wet ground. Moldy hay is not just bad for horses: one friend of mine had to give up his beloved animals because mold from their hay took hold in his lungs when he fed on windy days. The doctors said it was particularly hard to eliminate a fungus from his insides, since fungus genomes make up a good part of the human genome. What’s bad for a fungus is not good for a person.

We didn’t feed oats much, using “horse cookies” to entice our little herd of five in where we could catch them. That’s hay, maybe alfalfa, compressed with molasses and extruded as cake. The dog liked them, too, and I tasted them a few times. Not bad at all. I’ve always had a fondness for alfalfa, like alfalfa tea, which we referred to as “alpha-falfa.” (See Verlyn Klinkenberg’s classic book, “Making Hay.”)

My black and white horse, Zuke, was a real pig and LOVED cake. Once at our “little” ranch on Two Medicine (before Bob bought the “big” ranch out on Flatiron Creek), I was having coffee with a visitor when we heard “fwump!” and then again “fwump!” out on the road in front of the house. We went to look and there was Zuke, unloading the sacks of horse pellets that filled the back of my visitor’s pickup. Grabbing a corner of the paper sack, he’d just slide them over the edge. “Fwump!”

Another time I looked out the window to see that our little red van had a horse rearend sticking out the back. The back doors were open so I had slid the horse cookies way up behind the driver’s seat, I thought out of reach, but Zuke had crawled in there on his elbows. Bob always said it was a waste for us to have such a horse, because a rodeo clown could have taught him to be a show-stopper. He wasn’t a big horse and it was pretty easy to flop him on his side when riding, just by suddenly throwing your weight. Once when we were leading him out to pasture he tripped, fell and skinned his knees. Such antics were not welcome when we were running fast on the prairie.

After I was gone, Zuke got into too much of something and developed laminitis, which is a condition where undigested or improperly digested food makes proteins too big to circulate in the blood, which causes the layers of the hooves to separate, peel, and lame the horse. By then Bob had enough money to call the vet and did, but there’s not much that can be done for the problem. Zuke hung around the ranch house where he could lean on the buildings, which meant he didn't graze and got thin. I’m glad I didn’t see it. Bob claimed that he made a miraculous recovery, but I think after Zuke died he got another similar horse and claimed it was Zuke.

Once he had asked me whether, since Zuke was theoretically my horse, I would like his hide when he died. I knew he was trying to make me react, so I said blandly, “Sure. The hide would look great on my floor for a rug,” which made Bob snort. I don’t know what really happened to Zuke, except that he lives on in sculptures, esp. the ones painted black and white.

There is more to consider about hay than just the well-being of the horse. It’s smart to buy “certified noxious weed seed free forage” to keep nasty stuff from growing around your home place. It’s required if the hay is be packed in to a federal forest. One year I asked for horse dung from the loafing shed of a corral on the edge of town where a guy kept his hunting horses. (The loafing shed because the horses hung out in there all summer to get shade and therefore trod the “cowboy muffins” into dry fiber.) I put this on my flower beds and got pretty good results. It was a lot pleasanter than the steer manure mixed with wood chips from feedlots, even though that’s baked to get rid of the seeds. But I did give a bit of thought to tetanus, which is carried in horse dung, and wore my gloves to dig around that summer.

Flesh cycles through grass and grass cycles through flesh. It’s a good thing to do it well.

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