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'Weather' or not to wrap hay

Andrew Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 12 July 2019
wrapped bales

Okay now, first things first. I do know the difference between “weather” and “whether.” I debated on the misspelling as an attention-getter, and if you’ve gotten this far, it worked! Thus far, 2019 has been an interesting weather year to say the least. My heart goes out to my fellow farmers who have seen cropland besieged by rain.

Regarding rain, Mom used to say, “You can do more with it than you can without it,” but I also had a fellow dairy producer recall his dad sharing that “a dry year will hurt and a wet year will starve you.”

In my role as a county agent, whenever the year turns wet, I field calls and questions about wrapping wet hay. Wrapping hay can be a great way to make some high-quality feed, but it also can spell disaster for those who are not making quality hay to begin with.

Thinking about this phenomenon has also led me to challenge my clients’ motivations in order to start the process of deliberating all machinery purchases, because there is one immutable fact in farm equipment: There is no one answer nor is there a stand-alone decision. Each decision on the farm is due to, and leads to, the next decision.

Let’s think about buying a wrapper for wet hay because the rain this year has made it difficult to get dry hay up in good shape. The first issue that you may encounter is your baler. Can your current baler handle wet hay? A neighbor who has three hay balers traded one recently simply because it would not roll wet hay.

Harvesting hay wet means that you are also harvesting more water. More water means more weight. Are your hay handling capabilities able to handle wet hay safely? We never baled wet hay (we chopped our alfalfa), but we did bale 6X5 bales, which were larger than the norm in our area. Occasionally, we would help a neighbor with their hay, and one thing we would make clear before the baler ever went into the field was the need for them to match their tractor’s lifting capabilities to the bale size they were about to harvest. We could adjust how tall the bale was but not how wide the bales were. 

To the point, you may need a heavier tractor to handle and haul the bales, especially since wet hay of any size will be heavier than an equally proportioned dry bale. For example, if you are harvesting a 750-pound round bale of dry hay testing 85% dry matter (DM), that same bale at 50% DM will weigh in at 1,275 pounds, nearly 60% heavier. At some point every tractor axle, tractor hitch or loader will reach its maximum load. Trust me, finding that point is not a good goal.

Depending on your style of wrapper, you may need specialized handling equipment so as to not damage newly wrapped hay. While a tube wrapper doesn’t require a bale squeezing attachment, tubes of hay can also eat up a lot of ground, whereas individually wrapped hay bales can be stacked, whether in a barn or outside.

Individually wrapped bales may offer you the ability to sell wet hay, but they do use more wrap and again require that you (and possibly your customer) have special equipment, such as a bale squeeze or grapple, to handle the bale without damaging the wrap. Selling wet hay from a tube is possible as long as your customer is aware of what they are getting and realizes the moment the bale is exposed to the open air the clock is ticking to use the feed.

Feeding wet hay can be different than dry hay. Being wet and heavy, your hay may need to be ground or fed in a more contained fashion so that its full nutritional value can be transmitted to the herd. Of course, good feeding practices are important in all offerings to our livestock, so let’s just say that you need to think about the age of your animals, the overall number of animals you are feeding and even the amount of hay hauling you do to transport forages to your animals.

Finally, if you are interested in wet hay because it has been a rainy year, your field itself is a consideration. If weather conditions make your newly mown hay wet, it is a sure bet the soil under that hay is wet as well. You may be able to get into your hay field sooner and avoid the rain in one case, and be in the field when it would be advisable to be in the shed in another. With that in mind, the tire size and the way your equipment is balanced may be considerations to help reduce soil compaction, especially in wet conditions.

A good friend (and excellent haymaker and cattleman) shared recently that he liked his wrapped hay, but it sure was more work than he had anticipated. His labor force is pretty much himself and his wife, so adding steps to the hay-making process is a true consideration as they grow older, even though their motives for using wet hay are sound. As a wise neighbor said, “As I get older, farming isn’t as fun as it used to be.”

Of course, there are more considerations as we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of wrapping hay. Our purpose here is to think about the needs and strains placed on the equipment we use, but issues such as overall feed availability, nutrient management, animal health and available resources (both financial and otherwise) all are important.

The most important thing to remember is there is no silver bullet or magic pill that solves every problem for every farmer. Only after careful and thorough deliberation can one come to the best solution for them, their farm and their livestock.

Do remember this: Making a decision on machinery purchases based on what is happening or what has happened requires us to deal with what will happen or must happen in the future, both good and bad. This holds true in haymaking and in every other aspect of our farming operations.  end mark

Andrew Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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PHOTO: While wrapped hay can alleviate hay drying difficulties, it also creates some different challenges in handling, labor and additional machinery. Staff photo.