For beef producers harvesting this year’s hay crop, “Keeping what we've got is important," says a Purdue University Extension beef specialist.

After a wet spring and delayed hay harvest, Ron Lemenager says it’s essential that beef producers store hay properly to reduce nutrient loss. Much of the hay harvested now will be used as a main feed source this coming winter. Improper storage can lead to losses in weight or dry matter, as well as the vital nutrients required by animals – such as soluble energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.

"In an ideal world, producers would store hay bales inside," says Lemenager. "But, with most producers using large, round bales, that's often not possible."

For outdoor storage, Lemenager says protecting hay quality starts with baling. The moisture level of the crop should be 15-18%. Anything above 22% poses a spontaneous combustion risk from bacterial growth. The same is true for bales with internal temperatures approaching 170°, so producers making wet hay need to monitor bale temperatures, especially when hay is stored inside.

He also points out that tight, uniform bales shed water much better than loose, dipped or coned bales. And if using twine, farmers need to put enough on – every 6-8” – to securely hold bales together. Another option is to use net wrap instead of twine.

Once harvest and baling are complete, producers need to consider the storage site.

"It's important for the storage site to be well-drained," Lemenager says. "Farmers can use 1-2” of crushed rock to prevent moisture wicking into the bottom of bales. They also can store bales on top of old poles, tires or pallets to minimize ground contact."

Hay should not be stored in shaded areas, and unless it’s stored inside, bales should never be stacked because too much moisture gets trapped and causes spoilage. The best way to store hay outdoors is to tightly pack bales end-to-end in a north-south orientation so the morning sun dries one side of the bales and the afternoon sun dries the other, he says.