Proper Hay Storage Saves Money and Nutrients

(This article was featured by High Plains Journal, September 20th, 2010)

By Jennifer Bremer

Most livestock producers will make hay all summer to feed it all winter, and being so dependent on hay for winter feed means proper storage is important as well.

Hay is the most common winter feed option, and while it is less risky than the other available options and requires the least amount of planning, it can also be the most expensive, according to Oklahoma State University Extension forage and pasture management specialist Darren Redfearn.

“During a four-month hay feeding season, a 1,200-pound cow will consume approximately 30 pounds of hay each day. This means that each cow will require between three and four round bales weighing at least 1,100 pounds,” he said. “Therefore, proper storage is important to be sure the cows are getting the nutrients they need from the hay.”

Storage options

Redfearn said the best way to store hay would be inside to ensure it is out of the weather conditions. However, since that is not always possible, it is important to do the best job of storing it to prevent hay losses, which can be as high as 20 percent and result in increased winter-feeding costs. “Uncovered hay bales stored outside on the ground can result in hay losses that can range from five to 20 percent in only nine months,” he said.

“Elevating the bales using either gravel or pallets may reduce the dry matter losses to three to 15 percent.” Covering bales with tarps can help prevent losses on hay stored outside also. Covered bales that are still stored directly on the ground can have losses of five to 10 percent, and if bales are covered and elevated, the losses decrease to two to four percent, which Redfearn said is similar to barn-stored hay. In an enclosed barn, losses are usually less than two percent.

If bales are stored outside, he suggested selecting a site that is not shaded and is open to breezes to enhance drying conditions. The site should be well drained to prevent moisture absorbing into the bottom of the bale.

“As much as 12 inches of the bottom of the bale can be lost due to moisture ‘wicking’ into the bale. This is the main reason for elevating the bales on pallets, old tires or six inches of crushed rock. If possible, get the bales off the ground without spending much, if any, money,” he said.

Weather deterioration is normal for round bales stored outside. Round bales stored outside should be fed within nine months after they are harvested if possible. In areas with high rainfall potential, storage losses can potentially double due to the high rainfall potential and increased


Large square bales should be stored in a barn or at a minimum, covered, due to the inability of flat surfaces to shed water.

“The flat surfaces make for more efficient transportation and handling, but their ability to shed water is practically non-existent,” he said.

Large square bales can be stored outside in a well-drained area, on a gravel pad, with a cover for the short-term, but inside storage preserves the quality longer. Small square bales should be stored inside.

Proper baling

One important key to reducing weathering is the tightness of the outer layer of the bale.

“Moisture will penetrate a loosely packed bale, causing greater loss of hay.

An easy method to check this on newly formed bales is to press on the outer layer with the palm of the hand. If it goes in more than about a half-inch, then significant storage losses should be expected,” said Redfearn.

“Common sense would say that net-wrapped bales would have a tighter surface, which would repel water due to more uniform wrapping. However, bale density, which may be more important, is going to be more related to the baling process than how the bale is tied,” he added.

The economics

“When talking about practical economics, the first point to be made is that higher-quality hay has a greater potential for nutrient losses. Thus, the higher the quality of the hay, the more attention that should be paid to storage methods that will reduce the potential for losses,” he said.

Redfearn explained that if hay is purchased for $60 per ton, a 20-percent storage loss results in a loss of $12 per ton. Large round bales can weigh between 600 and 1,800 pounds, but if the average bale weights 1,000 pounds, this means a bale stored on the ground can lose up to 200 pounds in nine months.

“If a 1000-pound bale was placed on gravel or on pallets and covered, the loss could be as low as 24 pounds,” he said.


No matter which method is used for feeding hay, producers will see some amount of hay loss.

One disadvantage of feeding hay is that cattle can waste up to 50 percent of the hay fed if it is not fed in a feeder or ring. In this case, the number of hay bales required will double to between six and eight round bales for each cow. University of Missouri Extension Forage Specialist Rob Kallenbach advises to feed hay in small amounts or in a feeder to minimize waste.

“When fed a limited amount of hay at a time, cattle have less opportunity to trample and soil the hay. Feeding hay in a hay ring also limits the opportunity that animals have to trample or soil hay, and will reduce waste substantially if you intend to provide more than a day┬╣s worth of hay at one time,” he said.

Ensuring cows have enough room to get to the hay is important as well.

Producers should have enough hay rings so each cow can feed when she wants to and is not pushed away by the most aggressive cows.

While unrolling hay on the ground may give all the cows easier access for feeding, it also can lead to feed losses of up to 40 percent.

If producers intend to feed hay in a single location all winter, Kallenbach suggests providing a footing such as crushed gravel or even concrete to help minimize problems with mud. It may be more cost effective to move hay-feeding areas around the farm to minimize the damage to any one area of the pasture.

Since hay stored outside usually has more spoilage during storage and lower palatability than hay stored inside, producers should feed that hay first.

“Cattle will waste a greater percentage of poor-quality hay than they will of good-quality hay. Animals fed high-quality hay early in the season will often refuse poor-quality hay when it is offered later,” he said.

No matter what type of storage and feeding methods are used, some loss is always seen, but by following recommended methods, these losses can be minimized thus saving livestock producers time and money.

Guidelines for storing round bales outside:

1. Butt the bales end to end in north/south rows and leave at least a foot between rows. This allows for drainage, sunlight penetration and airflow between the rows to facilitate drying.

2. Site should be well drained, not shaded and open to breezes. A three-inch gravel base, pallets or posts under the bales can further reduce storage losses by 10 percent.

3. Bales should not be stacked on top of each other unless they will be covered.

4. Control vegetation between rows.

Source: Darren Redfearn, Oklahoma State University
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