Recent reports of hay bale fires should remind growers to continue to monitor stacks and storage barns.

In August, 300 round bales burned near Lockwood, MT, according to a report in the Billings Gazette. Last week, firefighters battled a semi load of hay on fire in Iowa, caught on video by the Des Moines Register, and a “massive” fire at Haykingdom Inc., near Winters, CA. An estimated $6 million worth of hay, stored in the hay export company’s barns, was destroyed, according to a report at KTVU.com.

“Generally, hay fires occur within six weeks after baling, but have been known to occur even after a year,” according to a University of California Alfalfa & Forage News blog. They begin through a process called “spontaneous combustion … which depends on the initial moisture content of the hay, the ease with which moisture can dissipate from the bales and environmental conditions.”

The blog also mentions that the frequency of hay fires has increased as more growers have switched to large square bales.



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In addition, as drought worsens in Arkansas, growers there should be concerned about the potential for round bale fires, remind state public safety officials.

Round bale fires, says Jon Barry, a University of Arkansas Extension forester and volunteer firefighter, can be particularly tough to put out.

One major challenge, he says, is that round bales are assembled in layers, like tightly compressed rolls of paper. “Because the hay is tightly compressed, a round bale doesn't burn intensely or quickly. It is a smoldering fire that burns up into the bale. The bale has to be taken apart to get to the fire so it can be put out. And all of it has to be put out or it will flare up again.”

Where bales are located and on what terrain determine how bale fires will be extinguished. If a burning bale is in a hayfield, “the most effective approach is to get the farmer to tear the bale apart with his tractor,” Barry says. “If the terrain is flat, sometimes we just push the bale along and unroll it. Since we are going to spray water all over and into the bale, it is a total loss to the farmer anyway.”

Grass, compressed in round bales, forms a distinct, tough grain pattern almost like wood grain, he says. “When we are trying to get into the bale to find the smoldering area, we have to work across the grain, and that’s hard work,” he says.

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