Your best-choice hay storage method depends on your location, market and several other factors. But you're usually money ahead with some type of weather protection. In fact, it's a must, says Pasco, WA, grower Gib Tomlinson.

“Having good cover for your hay is a necessity in today's market,” says Tomlinson.

That's especially true with big square bales, he adds.

“If you damage the top layer of small bales you've lost about 10% of the stack. With the big bales, a layer is 25%.

“It costs a minimum of $70/ton to produce hay,” says Tomlinson. “Spending a few more dollars a ton to store it properly just makes sense.”

He sells his hay to cubers for eventual export to Asia. His corrugated metal hay barn, completed in the spring of 1998, stands 30' tall, measures 120 × 275' and has a 5,000-ton capacity.

“We store our second and third cuttings,” he says. “The first and fourth are sold right out of the field.”

By amortizing his shed cost over a 10-year period, Tomlinson figures the annual storage costs for his middle cuttings at around $8/ton.

Although he prefers shed storage, Tomlinson will tarp his hay to protect it until his buyers can arrange to move it.

“Last fall it looked like I was going to get caught on my fourth cutting,” he recalls.

The solution: He leased tarps. He estimates that it costs him less than $1.50/ton for a 30-day tarp lease, installation included.

Mike Collins, University of Kentucky agronomist, specializes in the harvesting and storage of forages. Unlike the dry eastern Washington climate where Tomlinson raises hay, much of Collins' state is in a high-humidity region.

“With the high density of the medium- and large-sized square bales, there's more potential in Kentucky for bale heating at a given moisture level (16% or higher),” he says.

Big square bales contain 16 lbs of dry matter per cubic foot while tight round bales only contain 12 lbs per cubic foot.

“This higher density restricts the movement of moisture from inside the bale to the outside,” Collins explains.

He notes that dry bale storage, which is in an aerobic environment, should not confused with ensiled hay, which is stored in a anaerobic environment.

Because of the need for ventilation in dry storage, Collins' choice for high-density square bales in humid regions is roofed structures with open sides.

“The ideal hay shed for these bales is a pole barn with no walls,” he says.

Collins estimates the cost of pole-barn storage at $5/ton on a 10-year amortization or $2.50/ton on a 20-year amortization.

Here are five questions from Tomlinson, Collins and other experts to consider when making hay storage decisions:

  1. What is your market?

    If you're selling top-quality hay, investing in the best storage possible is smart business, says Tomlinson. That's because the spread between high- and medium-quality hay is usually far greater than the cost of storage, he adds.

    On the other hand, growers selling feeder hay, usually worth $25-70/ton less than dairy-quality hay, should carefully balance their storage expenditures against their return.

  2. What are your climatic limitations?

    Environmental conditions play an important role in what types of storage work best in a particular region, says Collins. Check with your local extension agent or land grant university to determine what types of structures are best-suited to your conditions.

  3. Is a permanent structure practical?

    For growers who lease ground or bale hay in several locations, perhaps not. Remember, double-hauling hay can be both costly and time consuming.

  4. How long will you have to amortize your storage costs?

    A permanent hay structure is a long-term investment — 10 to 20 years. If you plan to be in the hay business for just a few more years, or are contemplating other changes that might soon limit the need for a hay shed, more-portable solutions might be the answer.

  5. Do you have other needs for a structure?

    It's always better to spread the cost of a structure over several applications and get as much use out of it as possible, says Collins. Hay sheds often can be used for other applications, such as equipment storage, when not needed for hay.

For hay storage floor plans or construction ideas, check out sites on the Internet, such as www.mwpshq.org, which is the home page of Midwest Plan Service. This site gives free plan downloads (click on Purchase & Download, then MWPS Plans for Free) of a number of types of buildings. It also offers other plans for sale.