Hay is a great option for feed, however, without an effective storage strategy, a significant amount of money and quality will be lost. Economists estimate the total value of hay storage and feeding losses nationwide is close to $3 billion annually.
Steve Morgan, an extension agent with the University of Georgia in Harris County, emphasizes the importance of proper hay storage in a recent blog post.
“The nutritional value of hay has a great deal to do with determining which storage options are most cost effective,” Morgan says. “The higher the quality of the hay, the greater the impact of storage and feeding losses. Storage losses increase the quantity of hay needed. Additionally, it will lower forage quality of the remaining hay enough that additional supplementation is required,” he adds.
The lowest cost method to store bales is on the ground and uncovered; however, Morgan notes, “Bales can lose up to 40 percent of their dry matter in the first six months if stored in this manner.” In the Southeast, moisture content of uncovered bales stored on the ground can rise by 120 percent.
Weathering depends on an area’s climate, the size of the bale, and the type of forage. Weathering begins slowly but accelerates as time goes on.
Mitigate outside losses
If bales are being stored on the ground, Morgan suggests placing them on a downhill slope where there is proper water drainage. A low-cost way to reduce losses is to place a layer of rock or gravel where the bales will be stored. This method reduces the amount of water that will seep into the bales from the bottom.
The use of wooden pallets is an even better way to store bales on the ground. Pallets provide a water barrier and allow for air circulation under the bales. According to Morgan, using pallets can reduce storage losses by two-thirds.
Covering bales stored outside is a good way to prevent losses and reduces storage space. Uncovered bales shouldn’t be stacked since it prevents water from running off the bales and they remain wet for an extended period.
Stacking is an economical method to store bales if they are covered. Low-cost plastic covers are less of an investment but may not be reusable over multiple years. Although more costly, thicker plastic can be reused over a period of years.
“Individual covers have become more economical and more popular in recent years,” Morgan notes. “Bales wrapped with plastic netting or sleeves shed water better than those wrapped only with twine.”
As a long-term option, Morgan suggests building a storage facility. These facilities are the most economical choice, especially when considering forage losses. “The typical dry matter storage loss of dry hay using inside storage is usually around 5 percent.” Morgan explains. “Compared to the 40 percent or more with hay stored outside in the Southeast, it's easy to see that reduced losses can provide a payback on barn construction,” he notes.
The initial cost of the storage facilities is much higher than temporary outside storage methods; however, for those planning to store or feed large quantities of high-quality feed, it is easily the best option.
Overall, Morgan notes proper hay storage cuts down on deterioration. Hay storage options are directly related to hay losses, which can be substantial. The goal is to protect the bales from moisture.“The cheapest storage option in the short term can prove costly in the long run,” Morgan concludes.
Michaela King served as the 2019 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is majoring in professional journalism and photography. King grew up on a beef farm in Big Bend, Wis., where her 4-H experiences included showing both beef and dairy cattle.