CANFIELD, Ohio – Before you pull your baler from winter storage, consider this: One in four hay bales you’re about to make may disappear in the next year, and it won’t be going into the stomachs of your livestock.
Farmers can lose up to 25 percent of all hay baled to poor storage techniques, according to Penn State Extension beef specialist John Comerford.
“In some years when we don’t have much hay, you can cut your losses and pay for the extra management” to keep hay in good shape.
Just watch how and where bales are stored and used, he said.
Bale value. Pastures and hay have high value in a beef, dairy or sheep operation.
Pastures are the cheapest way to get nutrients into animals and offer high quality feeds, Comerford said. With the livestock doing the harvesting for farmers, there are no losses in nutrition or quantity.
But grazing year-round is difficult to manage in this region, Comerford admitted.
“The key is how we go from standing forage to the cow, and that’s hay,” he said. “And the only thing that counts is how much the cow eats.”
Hefty matters. One reason farmers come up short in feedstocks is because they overestimate bale weight, Comerford said.
Farmers commonly estimate round bales weigh 1,000 pounds, but in reality they have lighter bales – and less feed.
Comerford said a 1,000-pound bale is worth 36 cow days, and an 850-pound bale is only worth 30 cow days.
That means a 1,000-pound bale can feed one cow for 36 days, or 36 cows for one day.
Overestimation leaves herdsmen with low supplies of hay before pastures can handle the herd.
In and out. The most variable losses come in storage.
Storage is always controllable and the most easily improved hay management tool, Comerford said.
Farmers often object to spending dollars to erect hay storage buildings, but storing hay indoors has major benefits to balance the structure’s cost.
“Any hay you put on the ground [outside] around this time last year is 30 percent lost by now,” Comerford said.
On a 5-foot diameter bale stored outside, the outer 6 inches all the way around are lost due to weathering.
“That takes away a foot of diameter and automatically reduces your bale 30 percent,” he said.
Wrap and stack. Other storage methods keep hay dry and useable.
Comerford said research shows covered pyramid stacks lose 12 percent to 16 percent of hay volume. Specific losses depend on how well tarps used to cover stacks are managed.
“It all depends on how much time you want to spend out there pulling that tarp up every time it blows off,” Comerford said.
Building the pyramid on a bed of large stone also helps by reducing how much water the bales will wick up from the ground, he said.
Wrapped bales stored outdoors measure 4 percent to 8 percent losses, mainly attributed to water pooling in the bottom of the plastic sleeves.
Comerford also cautioned against storing wrapped bales on stone to preserve the plastic wrap.
Net wrap. One major question producers raise is the monetary and hay-saving value of net-wrap, Comerford said.
And in his opinion, the tool isn’t all that valuable.
“How much help is it? Virtually zero. It doesn’t shed water,” he said.
“Net wrap is used for speeding up baling. It’s not really a storage tool,” he said.
Safe inside. Research shows the least losses – roughly 4 percent – in hay stored indoors, Comerford said.
“It really makes you question what a barn is worth,” he said.
“If you can get 25 percent more feed per bale, at $80 per ton … each 800-pound bale can pay you back $8 per year,” he reasoned.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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