HAMILTON, Mont. — It's early afternoon and the crowd of wooly llamas pushing up against the gate has its eyes locked on the wheelbarrow being pushed by Char Hakes.
As happy as they might be to see their benefactor, this group of girls is really most interested in the bright green bale of hay that wheelbarrow is packing.
It doesn't take long for Hakes to scatter the dried grass across the pasture at her Safe Haven Llama and Alpaca Sanctuary just north of Hamilton.
It won't take long either for the 40 llamas to make it go away.
That makes Hakes nervous.
"I have enough hay to last until November," she said. "And that's only like eight weeks away. I'm not really sure what I'm going to do if I can't find some more."
This year's widespread drought has sent the demand for hay skyrocketing around the region and that's causing some folks involved in animal rescue operations around the state to be concerned.
"It's a struggle right now," said Jane Heath of Montana Horse Sanctuary in Simms. "I'm getting so many calls from people who say they can't afford to buy hay and they need to re-home their horses."
In central Montana, Heath said many of the dryland hayfields went unharvested because it was dry. Much of the irrigated hay is being loaded onto semitrailers to be shipped to Wyoming and Colorado, where the drought situation was even worse this year.
"Last year, we paid about $150 a ton for hay," Heath said. "This year, horse hay is selling for somewhere between $200 and $225 a ton."
Heath said people should expect those prices to rise later this winter and spring.
"I'm hoping that people aren't thinking that I'll do my best to find hay in the spring," she said. "It could be really awful by then."
Ravalli County extension agent Ralph Johnson said supply in the Bitterroot Valley is tight and prices are up, but there is still enough to go around at this point.
This year's long growing season has helped quite a lot. Many hay producers are getting a third crop. Johnson said some of those are looking to sell that hay in markets farther east and south of here.
"They know that they will get a decent price in those markets right now," he said.
Local people looking for hay to feed their horses or other livestock this fall might want to consider buying their hay in larger round or square bales.
"You get a little bit better price per ton even though it's a little more work to feed out," he said.
In the Bitterroot, Johnson said hay prices seem to be hovering right around $200 a ton. Some sellers are getting a little bit more.
Last year, he said hay prices were closer to $140 a ton.
"I encourage people to stick with the same producer every year," he said. "They'll often give their regular customers a non-market rate because they know there will be years where there is a glut and prices will fall."
Theresa Manzella of the Bitterroot Valley's Willing Servants horse rescue operation said she's heard from an increasing number of people who don't have their feed purchased and are looking for different options for their horses this winter.
In anticipation of another wave of relinquished or neglected horses, Manzella said Willing Servants did obtain the use of 13 acres this year for pasture.
"That will be OK for a while, but we don't overgraze that either," she said. "The unfortunate part is that people just don't have a backup plan. There are only so many horses that we can accommodate."
Willing Servants maintains a community hay bank for emergency cases. It currently has about 10 tons.
"We know that will go fast," she said. "We fully expect that there are going to be people in dire straits this winter."
Shannon Alexander of the Bitterroot Valley's Western Montana Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation said horse owners need to get their hay locked up soon.
Even though hay prices might be a little higher than they were last year, Alexander said there is hay available in the Bitterroot right now.
"People just need to be diligent," she said. "It's going to be easier for them to find hay than to find a new home for their horse."
Back at the llama sanctuary, Hakes said she's always been dependent on the goodwill of hay producers to keep her llamas fed.
She's hoping that someone soon will deliver another load of hay to the nonprofit sanctuary.
"We're out of pasture and we have animals that will be coming back from foster homes," Hakes said. "I have 65 here now. I'm right at capacity. We sure could use some help."
Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com