Droughts are part of life for horse owners in Australia. Each drought brings its own set of difficulties. How well you survive drought will depend on the initial plan of action and the modifications undertaken to the strategy as the drought progresses.
Planning and decision making, must be done as soon as you recognise the possibility that the poor season may progress to a drought. If you leave your decisions until the drought worsens, many of the management options available early may no longer be available to you. Prices for horses usually drop dramatically, agistment dries up and feed prices generally soar.
The first step is to list the farm/ studs financial and physical resources so that the effects of various strategies, both long term and short term can be calculated. Water is probably the first thing to consider, as if this resource is inadequate, then it will be difficult to retain large numbers of horses.
The next step in drought action planning is to estimate when you think the drought will break. This will effect your calculations on how long you will be feeding your horses, how much it will cost and whether you decide to sell horses or not. It is best to over estimate the time you expect to hand feed your horses to be on the safe side. The list below provides questions you will need to address when deciding what to do in drought. Check to make sure your action plan addresses these questions.
- What is my current financial situation?
- Have I the time and facilities to feed horses?
- How long will I have to feed?
- Am I aiming at maintenance, growth or competition targets?
- What are the feeding needs of various classes of horses (foal, lactating mare etc)?
- What fodder/grain will I use and what will they cost at various stages of the drought?
- Will I have adequate water supplies to survive the drought?
- How widespread is the drought?
- Is suitable agistment available?
- What prices are horses now?
- What prices will horses be after the drought?
- What effect will reduced stock numbers have on my overall feeding costs?
- What effect will my strategy have on the pastures and soil?
- What effect will my action plan have on the long-term viability of my stud and horses?
Remember, allowing horses to starve is not an option as this is an offence under Australian law
The plan does not need to be implemented all at once and should be flexible to allow for changes in circumstances. For example you may only sell a certain class of horse or buy some fodder if conditions do not improve by a certain date.
You will find that having a plan of action will greatly reduce the amount of stress on you, your family and the horses themselves. Even though the plan may only need continual modification as the drought progresses, each family member will be working towards specific aims, especially if you have discussed the plan with them beforehand.
Environmental Impact of Your Plan
You need to consider the long-term effect your plan will have on your pastures and soils. The environmental management of a horse studs is usually the last thing considered by horse owners.
If your pastures are mostly annual species or your soil type is unstable, then you may need to lower the number of horses you intend to keep on your stud so as to minimise the effects a drought has on your property. You should consider confining at least some of your horses to a small part of the stud. This could mean yarding or stabling them for some period of time. Stud managers have successfully undertaken this option in previous droughts with the horses pastures and soils emerging from the drought with minimal impact.
If you were not on your stud during the previous drought, talk to neighbours or relations about what happened to your district during that period. They may be able to suggest strategies that reduce the impact of drought without significantly increasing your financial burden.
Toughing it out
It is your legal responsibility to ensure that horses do no starve to death or become distressed during a drought. Therefore, doing nothing is NOT an option. You may be tempted to do nothing in the hope that a poor season will not turn into a drought. In the mean time, paddock feed diminishes, the condition of your horses slip and feed prices escalate. Once these changes occur many options are no longer available.
The key message is to plan early and set deadlines to activate specific action. Remember doing nothing is not an option.
Agistment is sometimes more economical than feeding. The time saved from not feeding may be more usefully employed. Agistment reduces grazing pressure increasing feed available for the remaining horses on your property. It may be appropriate to only agist some horses. Foals, lactating mares and stallions should be kept on stud, as they generally require a high level on maintenance. Dry mares and idle stock should be considered first for agistment.
Inquire in your own district for agistment first. This should be done early in the drought to find suitable paddocks, otherwise you may miss you opportunity to agist. As the drought becomes more widespread, agistment becomes harder to find and the cost of agistment rises dramatically. It may then be cheaper to feed them on your own stud. It may also be impractical to supervise horses (especially foaling mares) at a distance. The cost of transport, chance of disease and losses also has to be taken into account.
Selling some of your horses is one option where early planning and action is advantageous. Selling decisions should be made before horses have lost too much condition to ensure horses are saleable and before market prices plummet.
When deciding what horses to sell and the timing the following factors should be considered:
• Present value of horses
- Quality of Horses
- Capacity of stud to carry horses through drought
- Impact on the studs breeding program
- Likely demand for horses at the end of the drought
- Likely length of the drought
In general, a sound policy is to sell some and feed the rest. Generally unproven or lower quality horses should be the first to go. Unproductive or geriatric horses should also be considered for sale.
For owners with small numbers of horses this information may not be as relevant as you will generally continue to stable and feed your horses. Careful planning however can minimise costs and ensure your horses have access to quality feed and water throughout the drought.
In large scale operations supplementary feeding is a time consuming job. However regardless of the size of your stud some form of supplementary feeding is required. Horses will have to be fed rations that will keep them in at least a condition score of 2 until the drought ends. In some cases, a short-term increase of ration may be requiring for lactating mares and sale horses. Budgets need to be carefully calculated, as profit margins during droughts are minimal for stud owners.
Previous experience shows that quality dry pastures, stubble and failed crops are often much better nutritionally than first anticipated. This can reduce the feeding levels needed to maintain liveweights and thus the estimated costs of retaining stock. Horses should be weighed or conditioned scored regularly to ensure they are not over or under fed.
Unfortunately if you are too late in applying a drought action plan many of your horses may become unsaleable and their condition falls below 1. It may no longer be an option to start feeding them but the may have to be humanely destroyed. Shires in previous droughts have made areas for sheep and cattle to be disposed of. Horses are no exception apart from the fact that they are now more of a companion animal rather than a stock commodity. Information on the correct way of destruction can be obtained from your local Department of Agriculture Office.