Storing hay, after production, has a cost to the farm operator in terms of time, effort and machinery required to move bales from production areas to storage areas and then to feeding areas.
Costs are also incurred when quality or nutritional value of portions of the bale are lost due to rotting and deterioration during storage. Usually this is a result of the way or places bales are stored.
Farm operators are paying for storage materials or buildings wether they use them or not.
Losses. When hay is left uncovered or improperly stored, loss occurs. How much loss one can afford must be determined by the farm manager for individual situations.
Aside from production costs, materials used for storing bales, the amount of loss during storage and labor costs must be considered to arrive at the true cost of the hay.
One can then determine if there is a less expensive method or more effective manner of storage that could be used.
The higher the quality of the hay, the greater the economic cost when forage loss occurs. Rotting loss incurred during storage increases the amount of hay needed to sustain livestock through the winter feeding period.
Supplementation. Supplementation may be needed to offset quality loss, if considerable deterioration occurs, because the livestock may not be physically capable of eating enough hay that has lost its nutritional qualities to meet their nutritional needs.
If not corrected with supplementation, weight loss and a host of other problems will begin to emerge.
Many times, these losses occur and managers cannot calculate an actual dollar value – for example, a weak, slow-growing calf or a calf lost at birth, cows producing less than maximum milk, or extended periods of time before re-breeding takes place.
All of these cost the producer money and may be a result of improper hay storage.
Climate. Climatic conditions obviously play a role in determining the extent of loss that may be incurred when hay is stored outside. The amount of rain received, as well as the timing of the rains, determines to what extent damage may occur.
A quick, hard downpour of 2 inches to 3 inches has less impact than the same amount strung over several days.
In combination with a rain event, continued cloudy, overcast and humid weather is more harmful to hay quality than returning to a bright, sunny high-pressure system that would allow the bales to quickly dry.
Likewise, hay stored in shaded tree lines or less-ventilated areas will incur more damage than bales stored in open, sunny areas where breezes are free to circulate around the hay and dry it quickly.
Site selection. Moving hay that has been stored outside for a period of time is often more difficult than when it is freshly baled.
Locating bales near feeding sites reduces the distance necessary to move the feed if strings are broken. Well-drained storage sites are best. Stay away from bottoms and especially flood-prone areas.
Gently sloping areas with a southern exposure are preferred. This allows water to drain away most quickly.
The top of a sloping area is preferred rather than the bottom portion, since less water will move over the top or higher area.
Bale orientation. Storing bales in rows facing north and south creates the best exposure for the sun to dry the rounded sides of the bales.
However, bales should be placed on the slope in a manner to allow surface runoff to escape down the row and not have to run through or under the bales.
Leave at least 3 feet between rows to ensure sunlight penetration and air circulation.
Do not let weeds or tall grasses fill this space and hold moisture.
While shedding water from the top of the bale to maintain quality and reduce loss is important, several studies have shown it is more important to protect the bottom of the bale.
Protection of the bottom means elevating the bales off the soil surface by a means that does not hold water and therefor reduces the bale’s wicking action. This may be accomplished in numerous ways.
Examples might be wooden pallets, posts, pipe, or a stone pad made of 2-inch to 4-inch diameter rock.
Rock pads may last for many years and length of service will be increased if a geotextile cloth is laid before applying the stone.
Numerous commercial coverings for round bales are made. These vary greatly in cost and effectiveness. Individual bale covers are made, but are most suitable for producers who use relatively small quantities of hay.
Tarps or plastic sheeting may also be used to cover round bales.
Stacking. Stacks are usually formed in a pyramid shape to reduce the size of the covering needed. Two or three bales are placed on the ground to form the base.
Placing bales on top of the base gives either a three- or six-bale-per-row stack, with the total number of bales varying with the length of the stack.
When stacked, it is imperative to secure a covering over the bales and have the length of the cover extend down to at least the middle of the outer-most bale on each side, and preferably nearer the ground, but not touching the ground.
This open space along the sides combined with leaving the flat ends of the stacks uncovered will allow moisture under the cover to escape and a little air movement.
However, wind can exert a considerable lifting force as it gusts across a stack.
Properly securing the cover must be done to keep it from blowing off throughout the storage period.
Be sure the bales are dry before stacking and covering the hay. Applying a cover to round bales that are not completely dry (approximately 18 percent moisture or less) may result in a considerable amount of spoilage next to the cover.
Storage facilities. In many cases, where no attempts are made to reduce loss using covers or elevating the bottom of the bales off the ground, building a storage facility could save farm managers a lot of money over a period of years.
As noted, high percentages of each bale may be lost to spoilage and smaller bales are affected more than larger bales. If only 20 percent of a hay bale valued at $20 each is lost to spoilage (less than 3 inches on a 4-foot bale), managers lose $4 per bale.
If 150 bales or more are in this condition, at least $600 per year, maybe more, could be used toward construction of a storage shed and not be costing the farm manager any more money.
Material, construction costs and insurance vary greatly, but many operations could realize a savings from constructing a storage shed.
Conclusion. The cost of feed accounts for approximately 90 percent of the variable costs for cow-calf operations. Hay production accounts for a major portion of that 90 percent.
Round balers on the market produce a variety of bales having different densities, sizes and methods of tieing/netting.
If no additional coverings to the hay are made to reduce loss, choosing the baler that maintains quality and reduces dry matter loss the most may be extremely important.
Make sure the methods you are using to store hay for your livestock are the most economical and beneficial for your operation.
(The author is an OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Educator in Monroe County, Ohio. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.)