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The hidden cost of wool

Hay. It’s just grass, right? Cut when long and left to dry in the field for a couple of days, then collected up and baled. You’d think that with the climate we have in the UK it wouldn’t exactly be in short supply. But, for some reason, it is.

Bales come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Small’ bales are about a metre long and 25 by 35-ish cms at the ends. Big bales are enormous, and so heavy that if one landed on you, that would probably be your last gasp – literally.

Just two winters ago, small bales were easy enough to buy. There were plenty of big bales around too, but for people such as my wife and I (who have a small flock of eleven sheep, or ‘lawnmowers’ as they’re also known) having a shed stuffed to the gills with 70 or so small bales was enough to take care of things for the entire winter. Small bales cost £2.50 each – which seemed quite expensive for a block of what is, after all, dry grass.

 

hay, imageThen we had a lousy (even by UK standards!) summer. So the following winter the price of hay – now a scarce commodity – was suddenly, alarmingly different: £4 a bale.

Followed by yet another summer which, as far as I was concerned, was far better than the two previous wet and muddy versions. Accordingly, I fully expected the price of hay to come tumbling down to something reasonable. Wellies in place, I ventured into the yard of our neighbouring farmer, dealer in hay and straw, to find out what we faced this winter.

O, mi, god.

For starters, there were NO small bales available. So, suddenly we had to figure out where we could put a BIG bale.

The previous year, the farmer brought our small bales into the sheep’s paddock by tractor, and unloaded them there. We then trudged across the field to the shed carrying two bales at a time in a wheelbarrow. It was out of the question to try to move a big bale to the far shed in the same way. For one thing, the sheer weight would have stranded the wheelbarrow in the mud halfway across, and for another the size of the bale meant the barrow handles would be…somewhere underneath. Fortunately we had another, smaller shed within the sheep paddock. All it required was a little re-modelling in order to accommodate a big bale. The entire front wall had to be removed, then reconstructed and re-hung as a Really Big Door. The shed could then hold two big bales, each being roughly 8ft long and 3.5 x 3.5ft square at the end.

We ordered our first two bales. Each of them represented between 7 and 8 small bales – but once again the cost had gone up: they were £45 each.

I had been expecting some kind of ‘economy of scale’ reduction in the price per cubit foot, but alas. So, in the complete absence of an alternative, we coughed up.

When the front bale was gone we ordered another which proved to be even bigger, not being square at the end but rectangular. I’d guess it was closer to 3.5 x 4.5ft at the ends, and 8ft long. And once again, up went the price: £75.

Good grief. Anybody want a sheep? Or two?

And last week, of course, they had eaten their way through the whole thing and once again I was across the road at the farm, ordering another.

This one was a step back to the previous size, but yet another hike in price: £55. And, it’s lousy hay! Compared to what we’ve had until now, this is very coarse and rough – and the sheep…don’t like it. The farmer told me he’d also been offered ‘nice’ hay, but as it was close to £100 a bale he declined.

So, over the last three winters, good quality hay has gone from £2.50 to a whopping £12.25-ish per small-bale’s worth. I think that even puts the rising cost of energy to shame.

Clearly, hay is in very high demand but also in very short supply. Anyone who harvested hay can charge unbelievable prices and there’s nothing much the rest of us can do about it. Grass doesn’t grow at this time of year, but livestock have to eat. Of course, it’s a huge burden for many. I heard stories towards the end of last summer of local farmers who let their livestock into fields of long grass because they despaired of it ever being dry enough to mow: it was either do that, or just lose the grass altogether. Of course, most of the grass was trampled in the process – and none of it ever became winter storage. If this was a widespread activity it’s no wonder hay is so scarce right now.

We’re hoping that this year will be better. Our remaining bales should see us through the rest of the winter and into warmer weather beyond, and our very kind neighbours just asked if we’d like to graze our sheep in their field, which is adjacent to ours. Apparently in doing so we’ll save them from having to mow it every couple of weeks!. No problem. All I have to do is put in a gate and arrange a schedule so that our sheep and their dogs aren’t trying to share the field at the same time. But there’s no question that we’ll accept their offer – after all, you have to make hay while the sun shines!

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