One bale at a time, bought from the feed store. That hardly makes sense economically, but it's only one peculiarity of the market of alfalfa for horses, according to Ann Rodiek, professor in the Department of Animal Science at California State University, Fresno.

Rodiek says chances are hay producers and marketers would just as soon not deal with horse owners. Alfalfa isn't the be-all, end-all of hay for all life stages of horses, but it has key nutrients many classes of horses need. Grass hay is short on nutrients for a growing horse but is valuable as a filler. Mixes bring out the best in both.

Regardless, the horse population in California, estimated in the broad range of at least 400,000 and as many as one million, can't be overlooked.

At the recent 31st California Alfalfa and Forage Symposium in Modesto, Rodiek profiled the horse-owning public. Among the characteristics: women make up 80 percent of the group, and 90 percent have some college education. Since 80 percent of the horses are kept for recreation, personal pleasure, or other non-profit reason, the owners perceive their livestock more as pets.

And that could account for the horse owners tending not to buy hay in bulk for an entire year when the price is low. They don't always take a business-like approach to their horse operation or finances. Many don't have adequate space or they don't manage their hay supply well. Unprotected bales break open, become infested with mice, or are damaged by water.

Even though an average 1,100-pound horse can go through 22 pounds of alfalfa a day or four tons per year, many horse owners simply can't afford to buy a year's worth of hay at one time.

Sadly too, at times the appearance of a bale — maybe no more than sun bleaching or a missing tie — is of more concern to horse owners than the complicated, less-than-stimulating details of nutrition.

She suggests hay sellers, in addressing the horse market, prepare to provide buyers some service along with the hay. What about lighter weight bales, something of well less than 120 pounds, that a woman can heft into the trunk of her car? What about delivering it tarped and palletized? What about delivering smaller lots to stables that don't have adequate and secure storage space? Or what about selling a year's supply at one time but delivering it at intervals during the year?

Explore niche markets

Seller, she went on to say, could consider exploring niche markets. One might be low-magnesium hay to prevent enteroliths, those deposits of magnesium or other minerals in the large intestine of some horses. On the other hand, high-magnesium hay might appeal to horse-rescue groups for feeding to starved horses. Other hays having high-selenium or other tailored mineral content might be developed.

Horse owners appear to be trending toward feeding more grass hay, and Rodiek said she sees a future for grass-alfalfa mixes. “There is a very good market for a grass-alfalfa mix. It still brings the good nutrition of alfalfa hay but in a watered-down concentration, which is lower in protein, brings the calcium to phosphorous ratio to a more reasonable number, and is usually quite palatable.”

And it doesn't hurt for hay dealers to do some solid networking with owners, feed stores, and vets. One outcome of the word-of-mouth approach might be the seller putting together several smaller loads for delivery at the same time to horse owners near each other.

Touching on the profile of horse owners, Rodiek said since so many have some college education, it should be possible to educate them about the best way to buy and feed hay.

e-mail: dbryant@primediabusiness.com