Honeysuckle Farm in Catharpin, two miles from the Manassas National Battlefield and in the midst of land once renowned for haymaking, has been breeding and showing Arabian horses for more than 15 years. Today, however, farm owner Linda Sadala said her horses eat hay from Ohio. Her equine operation goes through about 4,000 bales a year at more than $5 a bale.
"My biggest problem is finding clean hay here. It's either dusty or full of weeds," Sadala said. "Sometimes it's cheaper here, but a lot of times it's just no good." She said she has trouble finding a nearby supplier who can deliver both quantity and quality.
For a time, Sadala purchased top-quality alfalfa hay from Hollins Farms in Delaplane, Va. But there wasn't enough available to meet the stable's high-volume needs. When additional local sources of premium hay could not be found, Sadala said, she had no other choice but to turn to a hay broker in Canada, a businessman she found on the Internet.
As the horse population in Prince William and surrounding counties grows, local haymaking is not keeping up with demand. Not enough area landowners are producing hay specifically designed for equine consumption, so horse owners must go elsewhere, often at higher costs. Most of the hay that feeds the thousands of horses in Northern Virginia is imported from as far away as Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, even though this region has always been considered prime land for hay production. The problem? A mix of basic economics, less farmland and a lack of farmers with the expertise to make top-quality hay.
This time of year, hay looks to be plentiful. Large round bales weighing between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds can be seen in fields throughout the area. But most of them are made from fescue, a nonnative grass that is most commonly used for cattle feed, landscaping and compost mulch. Gary Hornbaker, rural resources coordinator for the Loudoun County Economic Development Office, said round bales typically sell for about $25 each.
Although some local owners feed their horses fescue, many avoid it. Local hay farmers say fescue, especially when produced in July and August, can be bitter and tough. A bigger concern is that it can contain the naturally occurring endophyte fungus, which benefits fescue but can cause reproductive problems in pregnant mares, including late-term miscarriages, lack of milk production and thickened placentas that can be difficult for foals to break through, especially if born in fields without human help.
The best equine hay typically consists of orchard grass, timothy, alfalfa or other nutritious species, sometimes in combination. It is commonly produced in small, square bales that weigh 20 pounds to no more than 80 pounds each and sell for $5 and up.
Making quality hay takes skill, patience and good weather. Taking into account the delicate digestive system of horses, equine hay must be grown properly and cut in a timely fashion. Good equine hay is cut when the grass is immature, then it is cured under hot, dry, sunny skies and baled when the moisture content is no more than 15 percent. To prevent rot and mold from developing, fresh bales must be picked up and stored immediately. Feeding moldy hay to horses is dangerous and sometimes deadly.
Equine hay that has been properly produced is virtually weed-free. High-quality hay is fragrant and smells of sun-dried grass. Bales containing too much moisture are often unusually green. Moldy hay smells sour and musty.
Labor costs and the expertise needed to produce the best equine hay cause some farmers and landowners to avoid the venture altogether. Hornbaker said one farmer can easily make round bales on 250 to 300 acres of land. Because it takes more manpower to make square bales, one farmer can handle only about 100 acres of that kind of hay.
"It all comes back to quality," Hornbaker said. "If you've got a $50,000 horse, you want good feed."
Robin Hirst of Fox's Wink Farm in Orlean, Va., agrees. Her efforts to find a farmer who can convert her acreage to hay fields have proved unsuccessful, but she feels fortunate to have found a local hay source. She bought 622 bales of Hollins Farms's orchard grass hay this year (currently priced between $2.95 to $5.95 a bale, depending on content) to feed her six horses. Last year, she paid $10 a bale for similar hay from Canada.
"It's lovely that the price is so much lower, but [local hay] also doesn't have to move between two or three middle people -- and the horses absolutely adore the orchard grass," Hirst said. A Virginia native, she remembers her grandfather fretting about weather and haymaking on his farm at the corner of what is now the Capital Beltway and Route 236.
Hirst said she likes knowing where the hay she buys was produced and prefers to support the local economy rather than import feed from outside the state. She said she believes homegrown hay has nutrients and values not found elsewhere and offers unique benefits, "just like local honey," she said. After living away from the area for many years, Hirst was surprised that she couldn't find local hay when she moved back to Fauquier.
"Fescue was rampant. It was a hassle for farmers to put up hay and they didn't feel the need to bother," Hirst said, adding that the price per bale isn't the only cost consideration. Her horses leave inferior hay on the ground, wasting it.
"At $10 a bale [for Canadian hay], you feel like they're eating caviar, so you don't want to waste any of it. But if it's not edible, they're going to trash it," she said. "On the other hand, if it's high in nutrients, they won't need as much and will eat less."
For Thomas R. Davenport, haymaking is a family tradition. His father, Robert C. Davenport, who died in 2002 at age 96, started Hollins Farms in the early 1950s. Davenport's son, Matt, 32, earned a master's degree in environmental engineering from Cornell University and has taken over most of the responsibility for the farming operation, which includes raising Angus beef cattle.
For the elder Davenport, farming is a societal as well as economic issue. Despite Northern Virginia's high demand for quality equine hay, too many landowners hold property as a real estate investment rather than viewing the land as an agricultural venture, he said.
"This is some of the best pastureland on the East Coast," Davenport said. "Just mowing it or bush-hogging it seems like a big waste when an animal could enjoy the grass. Doing something with the land has a public use and private benefits. Instead of mowing, pay farmers to farm the land."