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Don’t blow your cover

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 27 October 2020

Which of these methods of hay storage do you identify with?

  • Small squares are stored upstairs in an old two-story dairy barn.
  • I only store round bales outside (no hay barn) – flat ends snugly butted together on sandy loam soil with 3-5 feet between rows and a gently sloping incline.
  • In my hay barn, rounds are stored three or four high on the flat sides (soup-can stack); squares are stored on an asphalt floor in the barn.
  • Our small squares go up the elevator to the second story of my old henhouse.
  • I store some rounds in fence rows – on top of stone piles or utility poles, if possible.
  • My hay is stacked in an open-sided barn on loose shaken-out bedding hay for ground cover. Outside hay is tarped.
  • Quality rounds are stored in a hoop building; second-grade bales are stored on a rock pad.
  • All hay is stored in repurposed barns or on pallets with a layer of poly under the pallets.
  • I use old chicken houses.
  • I use old dairy bank barns.
  • I wrap everything.
  • I put a 6-inch gravel base with used quarry conveyor mats on the gravel base and pallets above the mats.
  • I write off the entire bottom layer, disposing of it when new hay comes in.

Quite a variety of methods are used to store hay, and all of the above happen somewhere, I swear.

Hay storage looks different all around the country, but still surprising is the amount of hay left unprotected. Think of it this way: If you walked out of the convenience store with a straw-sized leak in the bottom of your two dollar, 32-ounce fountain drink, you’d be upset, right? It’s sticky, it’s messy and you’re not going to be able to drink it fast enough to get full value.

Now magnify that frustration by 80 (the cost of a soda versus the cost of a ton of hay), and that’s the frustration you should feel when a ton of hay has been stored improperly and lost value. Besides being messy and a problem to deal with, and aside from the cost of mowing, raking and baling, and the sweat and hardy labor of putting it up, you’ve also lost nutritional value and palatability (causing greater refusal), even if the dry matter remains intact.

Last year, more than 63 million acres of forage crops were harvested in the U.S., and almost 129 million tons of that was hay. If we value that at $140 per ton, that’s equivalent to over $18 billion in value. Forage specialists have put hay value loss as high as 25% – that’s not just a straw-sized hole in a drinking cup; it’s effectively turned your 32-ounce drink into a 24-ounce drink. Now you’re really ticked, and you should be. These are real losses, not just potential losses, and it doesn’t even count the cost of replacement feed value.

Factors that may affect hay quality include growing conditions, fertility, species, varieties, pests, weed presence, harvesting, curing, handling and storage. For our purposes today, we’ll address just one factor – storage, specifically storage of round bales.

Outside storage

 “Minimizing losses in hay storage and feeding,” a document compiled by several forage specialists around the U.S., outlines some of the problems encountered by storing bales outside. The theory behind round bale formation is to provide a thatch covering on the bale, which should initially shed moisture. However, several factors can be problematic:

  • Coarse-stemmed crops or weeds do not thatch well.
  • Once penetrated, the bale loses the ability to shed water well and can actually increase moisture development in deeper areas of the bale.
  • Bales stored in contact with the ground can wick water into the bale.
  • Bale density (or lack thereof) contributes to its ability to shed water.

Many studies have shown net wrap to be slightly better than twine in preventing storage losses. Net wrap has the added advantage of stabilizing the bale better than twine, facilitating bale handling. Climactic conditions obviously have great impact as well: rainfall (amount and duration), high humidity, temperature, sun exposure and breezes.

There are some specific practices and decisions that can enhance any bale despite climate or a stack’s ability to maintain feed value.

Site selection

Storing bales take space – something we don’t give up willingly. If we choose to store bales in the field, there may be many conditions within the field that lend to good drainage and air flow, and likely, just as many that do not. Well-drained sites and higher-elevation sites, which are less prone to flooding and heavier soils, are preferred. In a relatively flat field, at least consider the general direction the wind blows, to help maximize its effect on moisture collection.

Bale orientation

Pyramids belong in Egypt, not in hay fields. Round bales stacked in pyramids outside create opportunity for moisture trapping, so the preferred method is single file, with flat ends butted up tightly against flat ends. Rows should be oriented along a north-south line to allow maximum sun exposure to the rounded sides. Leaving at least 3 feet of space between rows also minimizes shadowing from row to row and maximizes sun exposure.

Protecting the bottom

“We say, first break contact with the ground,” says Jimmy Henning, forage professor with University of Kentucky extension, “then use net wrap over simple twine – it is amazing how much you gain from that alone – and protect the top from rain.”

And, breaking contact from the ground can look like a lot of things, as the foregoing list entails. Different approaches will work adequately in different places, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method, but common methods involve plastic sheeting, pallets, gravel, a sacrificed straw layer or asphalt.

Protect the top

This is where the expense comes in – protecting the top of the bale. There are products available for individual bale coverage or a stack of bales. There are barns, hoops, tarps and plastic sleeves. Each achieves some coverage and protection, at a cost. Recall, however, that you’re losing money every day of the week when hay goes unprotected. Consider this: Studies have shown that dry matter storage loss of dry hay during inside storage is around 5% (due to shrinkage), compared to 25%-30% loss of hay stored outside in humid places throughout the U.S.


It seems like a small thing, no bigger than just a small hole in a cup. But, when hay isn’t stored properly to minimize moisture, the damage is much bigger than that and much costlier. Pencil out some options. You maybe can’t go top of the line in one leap, but you can do something. As one producer said of his system, “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.” And, he’s right. Something is better than nothing.  end mark

PHOTO: Covering the top of bales only solves part of the problem; breaking contact with the ground will prevent moisture wicking and bale spoilage. Photo by Carrie Veselka.

Lynn Jaynes
  • Lynn Jaynes

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