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Choices for round bale storage

Rodney J. Gasch Published on 27 March 2015
round bales stored in a barn

What’s the best way to store round bales? While all bales should be stored in a well-drained location, there’s unfortunately no definitive answer as to the “best” storage system.

It depends on the weather, the value of the forage, how long the bales will be in storage and the availability of economical indoor storage.

Dr. Kevin Shinners has looked at the topic of round bale storage from a researcher’s perspective, looking at nutrient preservation and waste at feeding.

“Research has shown that significant amounts of the waste at feeding can come from animals’ aversion to eating weathered hay,” says Shinners, a professor with the department of biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Thus, what looks like feeding losses can actually be storage losses, with the animals rejecting unpalatable forage.”

To identify ways of reducing storage losses, Shinners and a team of engineering and animal science specialists set out to compare various storage methods. In research published last year by The Professional Animal Scientist (Vol. 29: pgs. 665–670), various forms of round bale storage were compared both by testing hay quality and by quantifying animals’ preference to consume the forage.

Storage systems included net-wrapped round bales stored outdoors (on sod and on a rock pad), net-wrapped round bales stored indoors and round bales wrapped in a breathable film stored outdoors (on sod and on a rock pad).

Breathable wrap (B-wrap) is a relatively new product first introduced by John Deere for the 2013 hay season. It is applied by the round baler in place of net wrap, and it includes a layer of breathable film that sheds precipitation but allows moisture inside the bale to escape through microscopic pores.

“In our study,” Shinners says, “alfalfa was baled in early July and fed the following May. Even though the bales covered with the breathable wrap were stored outdoors for 10-and-a-half months, the nutrient values were similar to those of the net-wrapped bales stored indoors.” Cattle also consumed the breathable film-wrapped hay at a similar rate to the hay stored indoors.

Net-wrapped bales stored outdoors in the study showed significant nutrient losses, especially around outer layers of the bale, an area that makes up a significant part of the total bale volume. (The outer 4 inches of a 6-foot-diameter bale makes up 25 percent of total bale volume.)

“In the feeding trials that were part of this study,” Shinners says, “cattle consumed significantly more of the hay from bales wrapped in the breathable film than hay from net-wrapped bales stored outdoors.

For example, in one trial, cattle consumed 78 percent of offered hay from bales protected by the breathable film compared to consuming just 28 percent of the offered hay that came from net-wrapped bales stored outdoors.”

Earlier work by Shinners looked at round bales of dry hay wrapped in plastic using an in-line bale wrapper. This research showed moisture from inside the bale condensed on the inside of the plastic wrap, resulting in forage losses due to mold and algae growth.

Bales stored on endHowever, in that same study, Shinners reported excellent preservation of low-moisture (about 45 percent) silage bales stored in film-wrapped tubes.

Missouri dairyman Darron Schoen has had similar wrapper experience. He has heard stories about condensation on plastic wrap used to protect round bales of dry hay, but for making silage, Schoen found the in-line wrapper a great tool for the weather he faced in 2014.

“The in-line wrapper really saved us during last year’s wet spring and early summer,” says Schoen. “Being able to make round bale silage means we no longer worry about having enough consecutive drying days to bale dry hay. Plus wrapping round bales takes less labor and machine expense than putting forage into our bunker silo.”

In 2014 Schoen used breathable wrap to make straw bales and net wrap to make hay bales.

“Winter weather determines how much straw our herd will need,” Schoen says. “Since I can’t predict the weather six months in the future, we put B-wrap on our straw bales. That way, I know the straw will be clean and fresh even if it has been sitting for a year and a half. I try to use the same strategy with dry hay. For bales that will get fed within six months or so, net wrap is the economical choice.”

Schoen says he uses breathable wrap on hay bales carried over for a year or more.

This dilemma is one regularly tackled by hay grower Nathan Stone. Stone and his parents, Joan and Neil, operate a commercial hay and straw business near Ponoka, Alberta. Each year they market more than 1,500 round bales and 7,500 small square bales.

Stone utilizes a variety of storage methods: indoor storage, net-wrap round bales stored outdoors and breathable wrap for round bales stored outdoors.

“We have a variety of local customers,” Stone says, “who are willing to pay for different levels of forage quality. For example, if we have hay that’s not top-quality or has been rained on, we can market those round bales to cow-calf and feedlot customers who are more focused on the price of hay. We’ll wrap those in net and store them outdoors. The quality isn’t perfect, but it fits their needs and the price is right.”

Stone has other customers who are much fussier about forage quality, and these customers are willing to pay extra for indoor storage or for breathable-wrap bales. Chuckwagon racers fit into this group.

“These customers pay extra for small square bales of hay stored indoors,” Stone says. Stone also makes round bales in breathable wrap to provide high-quality hay for these customers.

Another niche for Stone is producing high-quality straw round bales, also stored in breathable wrap, used for bedding at the Calgary Stampede and the Ponoka Stampede.

Chuckwagon competitors are very fussy about the straw used in rodeo show barns. Stone’s straw is baled in the fall and not delivered until July, so optimum preservation of the straw is a big concern.

Although breathable wrap costs an extra $7 per bale, Stone says chuckwagon racers are willing to pay for a straw that looks and smells better.

Stone used to stack some round bales and cover them with tarps, but he much prefers the breathable-wrap solution. “… the baler puts on the protection,” Stone says, “with tarps there was extra labor, and every so often a wind storm would blow off a tarp, adding to the work.”

Mark McGrory from Victor, Iowa, also markets hay to livestock producers. “Our best hay – second and third cutting – typically gets wrapped in net and stored in some small sheds and barns we have on our property,” says McGrory.

When those buildings are full, he also uses breathable wrap for the bales that will be stored outside. As for the extra cost, McGrory says, “The payback only comes if we have top-quality hay to preserve.”

“Last year we had a lot of rain,” McGrory says, “and it was hard to make really good hay. So all of our first crop and much of our second and third crop went into round bales wrapped in net. I’m now supplying hay for my in-law’s two teams of mules, and they prefer my B-wrap bales that were made back in 2013.

Even though these bales have been sitting outdoors for one-and-a-half winters, they look and smell better than the net-wrapped bales I made just seven months ago.”  FG

Rodney J. Gasch writes about agriculture and farm equipment from his own small farm near Harmony, Pennsylvania.

Round bales should never be stored on end unless they are under cover. Whether stored indoors or out, round bales should rest on a well-drained base. Photos courtesy of Rodney Gasch.