Thursday morning, a flatbed truck backed up to a small canopy at the ReHorse Rescue Ranch near Jamestown. Pete Lawson of Hurst Ranch Feeds & Fencing unloaded 10 bales of hay that ranged from about $15 per bale for wheat hay to about $18 for alfalfa.
By early summer if not sooner, he might need to swap out the flatbed for a Brinks truck.
If youve driven through the foothills during this imposter that calls itself winter, youve probably noticed the landscape is devoid of its usual blanket of emerald green grass that, by May, is knee-deep in protein-rich feed for cattle and horses. To the contrary, the hills are brown. The deepest dry grass youll find is just outside the fences and just beyond an animals reach.
No rain means no sprouting pasture grass. No pasture grass means livestock owners must buy hay at a time when Mother Nature normally handles the catering duties. Like most other products, the price of hay is dictated by supply and demand, and hay brokers are going farther away from the Valley to find tonnage, grower/broker Hugo Van Vliet of Escalon told me.
In fact, one of his buyers last week ventured north of Klamath Falls, Ore., to secure alfalfa, and the costs of trucking it south will contribute to higher prices. How high? A ton of hay that now costs in the $250 to $270 range could soon cost around $400, Van Vliet said. Farmers here could be limited in the number of cuttings they get from their hay crops if water supplies fall short. Farmers from other countries, including China and Japan, also want American-grown hay and are willing to pay premium prices, which drives up per-ton costs as well, he said.
Which brings us back to the ReHorse Rescue Ranch and why it exists in the first place.
When hay prices spiked dramatically in 2008 combined with a free-falling economy some horse owners simply could no longer afford to feed their animals. So they didnt. Some starved them to the point where the horses had to be euthanized. Or they turned them loose, letting them fend for themselves. Or they conveniently misplaced them in pastures belonging to others. Some horse enthusiasts went for day rides at trails including the Red Hills west of Jamestown, returning from the workout to find one or two additional horses tied to their trailers, abandoned with hopes that someone else could afford to feed them.
The economy was so bad, ReHorse Rescue founder Raquelle Van Vleck said. People were losing their jobs and having to choose between feeding their children or their animals.
Like most other animal lovers, Van Vleck couldnt stomach what she saw: emaciated animals in extreme need of food and veterinary care. So she and her husband turned their 10-acre ranch near Jamestown into a rescue facility for abused horses. ReHorse was one of several rescue organizations that formed during the crisis. Other well-intentioned folk struggled or failed to make it due to underfunding or management issues.
Van Vlecks rescue has succeeded where most others have not. She created a nonprofit operation that, since February 2009, has rescued, revived and adopted out more than 350 horses. She recruited a network of volunteers who do everything from cleaning stalls to feeding and caring for the animals to raising money to keep the enterprise afloat.
Van Vleck draws no salary, nor does anyone else involved in the organization. She currently has 36 horses, two donkeys and a potbellied pig all rescued from abandonment or owners who otherwise would have had the animals put down. The animals have a 10-bale-a-day hay habit, and she said operating expenses range from $10,000 to $12,000 per month, depending on veterinary expenses and feed prices. Because ReHorse is a licensed nonprofit, contributions are tax-deductible.
Shes worked with eight different counties, including Stanislaus, to rescue at-risk animals of all ages. One horse, a 38-year-old named Sparky, came to her near death.
I didnt think hed make it more than a week. He was so bad, Van Vleck said. But he did, and hes put back on 240 pounds since.
Shes kept the place going and the animals recovering because of the generosity of the community, including a couple of grants from the Sonora Area Foundation. But she also knows that the effects of this drought literally could produce a re-enactment of what happened five years ago, if hay prices go as far north as projected. There will be a greater need for rescue operations that can sustain the influx of horses owners wont be able to feed and abuse through abandonment or starvation. She cant take on many more than she now feeds.
Annette Patton, executive director of Stanislaus Countys animal control, remembers the abuse cases of five years ago.
That was beyond horrible, she said. Frequently, the agency received calls from residents reporting abuse cases.
But, Patton said, the shelter has dealt with few cruelty incidents over the past couple of years. Horses that do come the agencys way are adopted out relatively quickly to good homes at very low fees $25 to $50 and the buyers are expected to know what theyre getting into.
When people purchase a horse, we lecture them about the responsibility and the expense, she said.
Patton said she sees no signs yet indicating that a repeat of the 2008 crisis is imminent. At the same time, weve seen what happens when people cant afford to feed their animals. ReHorse and other organizations can take on only so many more horses, and the rising cost of hay looms once again.
Droughts affect economies, hurting incomes while increasing prices. And unless the weather changes dramatically and in a hurry, that green bale of hay could soon seem more like a gold bar.