Drought, floods impact hay crop: Helping horse owners cope

Drought, floods impact hay crop: Helping horse owners cope

Aug 01, 2007

Precious commodity: Parts of the country still have hay stores, but because of the drought and severe winter, other areas have virtually none.
There is an old Italian proverb that says, "Your plate is always full of what you don't want."

I am sure that when my grandmother taught that to me she didn't have the weather in mind, but that sentiment certainly can be applied to this year's climatic problems.

Severe droughts are baking some areas of the country, while heavy rains and flooding soak others. In the center of all of this extreme weather are the nation's cattle and horses and the crucial hay crop that is needed to sustain them.

Whether it is too much rain to allow planting, cutting and baling or whether the dry ground and lack of rain doesn't allow any grass growth at all, the result is minimal hay production.

Table 1. Percentage of operations by primary method of recording equine health
According to the United States Livestock Marketing Center, as of May 1 the nation's hay stores were at the lowest level in 25 years. Obtaining good-quality hay at reasonable prices will be a challenge through the upcoming winter.

The drought gripping many parts of the country holds other threats to livestock as well. Dry, dusty conditions likely will increase the amount and severity of seasonal allergies and create more ocular and respiratory problems for horses.

Hard-packed ground and poor hoof growth may be responsible for more foot problems than usual. Weed invasion and increased toxicity of pasture plants during a drought may lead to other problems, and Vitamin E and selenium-concentration issues could also pose difficulties for horses in some areas.

Wetting down the track: Dry, dusty conditions are difficult for a horse's respiratory system, present challenges for the serious performance horse and contribute to hoof and joint problems. When water already is in short supply, it often must be used to prepare competition surfaces to hold down dust and to allow horses adequate footing.
It is advisable that practicing veterinarians be aware of the challenges faced by horse owners during the drought and be able to provide information, advice and suggestions on how to cope.

An age-old problem

Droughts have been a part of our weather for as long as we have kept weather records, and probably before that. Scientists called paleoclimatologists use historical documents, tree rings, archaeological remains, lake and river sediments and other data to determine what droughts were like over the past 2,000 years.

Connie Woodhouse, a University of Colorado research scientist and Jonathan Overpeck, head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association's (NOAA) Paleoclimatology Program, reported results of their recent research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

They found a greater range of drought severity in the past, as compared to those during more recent recorded history. "Droughts of the 20th century have been only moderately severe and relatively short, compared with droughts of much longer ago," say Woodhouse and Overpeck.

"When we look even further back in time (the 13th and 16th centuries), there is evidence for two major droughts (also called mega-droughts) that probably significantly exceeded the severity, length and spatial extent of 20th-century droughts," they add.

The 20th-century droughts were severe enough. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the result of drought conditions compounded by years of poor land management practices that left topsoil depleted. Many farmers were forced from their land and economic devastation was common.