If you don't have a shed to store hay in, tarping may be the next-best option.

It may even be preferable - both economically and for loading ease, say growers.

Don't protect your hay and you'll probably lose 12-20% to water damage. If you're baling $100/ton hay, that's $12/ton or more lost.

"Covering hay definitely pays," says John Starr of Covertech Fabricating, Inc., a hay tarp manufacturer in Toronto, Ontario. "We find a grower can save an average 20% of his hay, compared with leaving bales outside."

"Hay that has been protected sells better, too," says Glen Knopp, president of Inland Tarp & Cover, Inc., Almira, WA. "We typically see buyers paying $5 to $10/ton premiums for hay stored under cover."

When Rollie Bernth, of Ward Rugh Hay Co., Ellensburg, WA, buys hay, he sends a crew out to tarp it right away.

The company buys hay from Columbia River basin growers and exports it to the Far East - primarily to Japan.

"Not many farmers we buy hay from have hay sheds," says Bernth. "A lot of them grow alfalfa on leased land and do not want to invest in a permanent structure."

His company stockpiles tarped hay on the farms until it's hauled to Tacoma or Seattle for shipment overseas.

"When you're shipping hay 6,000 miles, you want to be handling quality hay," says Bernth. "And, while a hay tarp may not be as good as an enclosed shed, it's definitely better than no protection at all."

But tarps must be in good condition to be effective.

"Tarps are subject to wind damage in severe winter weather, and a tarp with a hole or rip in it can be worse than no cover at all," says Bernth.

Economically, tarps may be a better investment than sheds. Knopp estimates the cost of a reinforced hay tarp this way: A nine-bale high, four-bale wide, 54'-long stack of 100-lb rectangular bales holds 65 tons of hay. At $80/ton, that's $5,200.

"Uncovered hay will lose 11% to spoilage, mostly in the top layer," Knopp says. "That's $572 worth of hay. The cost of a 25 x 54' Super Tarp, rope and stakes totals $384. That's a savings the first year of $188 over the cost of the tarp."

The tarp should last three years or longer, which puts the savings for three years at $1,332.

"Tarped stacks are easier to load out of than a hay shed, too," says Conway Miller, Melbourne, AR. Miller and his son, Bill, grow grass and mixed grass-legume hay they sell and feed on their own farm. "Trucks can pull on either side of the stack and load out in less time than from a shed."

The Millers have used hay tarps for the past seven years in a region that gets 40" of annual precipitation.

"We're not losing much hay - maybe 2%," says Bill. "We take care of the tarps and get four or five years' use out of one. When a tarp finally gets a hole, we still use it as ground cover under the hay stack.

"We have a good horse-hay market for bermudagrass, and horse owners like bright, fresh hay," he adds. "Many times, a buyer will buy the hay stack, tarp and all."

That prompted the Millers to become tarp dealers a couple of years ago.

"We've even sold tarps to lumberyards to cover dry lumber," says Conway Miller.

The Millers stack big round bales in a 3-2-1 pyramid fashion. They use a 25 x 54' tarp to cover 66 bales, each 4 x 5'.

"That size tarp will cover 72 bales, but we tarp fewer bales in a stack and pull the tarp over the ends of the bales," says Miller. "The tarp costs $310 and covers 33 tons of hay - for a cost of less than $10/ton. Over a four-year life of a tarp, the cost is just over $2/ton of hay covered. We figure it's profitable not only to tarp our better-quality hay, but common fescue hay as well."