Driving down a county road recently, I noticed a farmer meticulously placing his newly made round bales side-to-side in a neat row under a tree line.

A little farther down the trail, on a different road, I noticed an uncovered, triangular stack of round bales, each progressive layer with one less bale.

This particular region of the country was not arid. Rain and melting snow would eventually take their toll on the bales stacked in both of these scenarios.

That toll would be paid in the form of dry matter loss and lower forage quality. Research bears this out. Further, these losses will occur in a year when forage quality is at a premium everywhere and when hay inventories are waning in many areas.

Though it’s well documented that the indoor storage of round bales results in a positive economic return, the reality is that round bales will continue to be stored where they must withstand whatever Mother Nature throws their way.

Losses mount quickly

Storage losses accumulate pretty quickly when you consider that the outer 4 inches of a 5-foot diameter bale account for at least 25 percent of the bale’s dry matter. Research studies have documented dry matter losses on outside-stored bales from less than 10 percent to over 30 percent. That’s a huge economic loss in any year but especially this one.

Best management practices for storing round bales outdoors are well known and proven effective. Still, we see far too many situations where the rules are broken.

Here's a quick refresher on how to limit your losses:

• Net wrap is more effective than twine of any type. Aside from a shorter wrapping time, net-wrapped bales shed water better, and research documents that dry matter losses will be cut by about one-third compared to twine. Sure, net wrap costs more but it’s an easy cost recovery when you consider the feed and time savings.

• Make dense bales — it’s a no-brainer that they shed water better. Perhaps more importantly, they sag less so that there is reduced bale-to-soil contact (if stored on bare ground). Much of the storage loss occurs on the bottom of the bale.

• As with real estate, location is important for outdoor bale storage. A rock base is ideal, but if that's not practical then select an area that is well drained and subject to good air movement. Some farmers store their bales on wooden pallets. Never store bales under or along a tree line where drying rates are slow.

• Tightly stack bales end-to-end. This reduces end spoilage. Reducing end spoilage by 2 inches per end per bale saves the equivalent of a 5-foot wide bale of hay for every 16 bales in the line. Stacking bales side-to-side or in a pyramid fashion (with no cover) allows water to roll off one bale and into another.

• Leave about a 3-foot space between bale rows to enhance air movement and drying.

• Run bale rows parallel with the slope. Rows stacked across the slope act as a barrier to water movement.

• Place bales in long north-south rows. This orientation allows for maximum drying.

Allow a thatch to form

The thatch layer that forms from oxidation on the outside layer of bales helps to shed water and protect the inner layers.

Factors that enhance the probability of an effective thatch layer forming include good bale uniformity and density, fine-stemmed grasses, leafy grasses, and the absence of weeds. Those factors that contribute to a poor thatch layer forming include annual or coarse-stemmed grasses and weeds.

Simply put, outdoor hay storage losses are costly but easily avoided with minimum investment. With higher than normal hay prices and an overall lack of high-quality hay available, taking the time and effort to minimize storage losses will pay even higher dividends in 2019 and into next year.