Store hay to maintain quality
Posted: June 22, 2005
By Troy Smith
Nutrition is fundamental to maintaining quality breeding herds and the production of quality beef. And forage is fundamental to the nutrition programs of beef cattle production systems. In the diets of mature and growing cattle, the nutritional value of grazed or harvested forages determines what levels of supplementation might be needed to meet animal requirements and reach production goals. Forage quality is important.
Thatâ€™s why producers are advised to test harvested forages for nutritional value. In doing so, many producers are disappointed to find the quality of their hay is lower than expected. Getting hay put up right â€“ cured to about 18 percent moisture content before balingâ€“ is a big factor. But hay storage methods also affect quality, contributing to the loss of nutrients and palatability.
At this time of year, many producers are scrambling to get their hay put up in good shape. Big round bales are the most popular method for packaging the product for storage. Todayâ€™s equipment has allowed one person to accomplish, in less time, the work that once required a whole crew of hay hands.
Unfortunately, says Kansas State University Extension Specialist Dale Blasi, the quality of much of the hay produced is mediocre. Itâ€™s not because of the equipment, and itâ€™s not necessarily because hay wasnâ€™t harvested in timely and correct fashion. Rather, explains Blasi, significant losses to hay quality often occur because bales are subjected to adverse storage conditions. Too often, hay is hurriedly piled in a heap, with little thought for preventing loss of quality.
Many producers probably donâ€™t realize how large their losses really are. For round bales stored outside on the ground for one season, 25 percent loss of dry matter is common. Coarse stemmed forages generally are more vulnerable to loss of quality than fine-stemmed hay. Regardless of hay type, the most spoilage occurs where bales come in contact with the ground and wick moisture from the soil.
Of course any exposed surfaces of bales stored outside are subject to weathering and loss of quality. Weathering may be limited to the outer four to eight inches of an individual bale, but that affects a surprising amount of hay. According to University of Minnesota data, a layer four inches deep over the entire surface (including the ends) of a bale measuring five feet in diameter represents nearly one-fourth of the baleâ€™s total volume. If the bale is weathered to a depth of eight inches, nearly half of its volume is affected.
To save space, and for ease of movement in bulk, bales stored outside often are stacked in pyramid fashion. Two parallel rows, consisting of bales butted end-to-end, are topped with a single row. However, this is one of the worst ways to store bales for long periods, unless the whole stack is covered with a tarp. In stacks left uncovered, moisture from rain or snow is held wherever the rounded sides of the upper rowâ€™s bales come in contact with bales in the two rows below.
In an ideal situation, bales would be stacked in a barn. Thatâ€™s not practical for many producers, so Blasi suggests they consider protecting stacks with plastic sheeting or tarps. The expense may be justifiable when compared to the cost of lost feed value in bales left exposed to the elements.
Some producers may prefer plastic wraps for individual bales. They are more expensive, but they do help maintain hay quality by keeping moisture out. However, they also keep moisture in. Individual wraps may actually promote spoilage if hay was baled when moisture content was high.
When uncovered outside storage seems most feasible, Blasi recommends storing bales in single rows with flat ends firmly butted together. If possible, rows should run north and south. This allows maximum exposure of the balesâ€™ rounded sides to the sun. Multiple rows should not be placed so close together that they touch and create moisture-holding areas that promote hay spoilage. Blasi recommends leaving at least three feet between adjacent rows to allow for air circulation and sunlight penetration.
When choosing a storage location, head for high ground. A gently sloping site is best, preferably with a southern exposure. Arranging rows of bales so they run with the slope will avoid damming surface runoff and allow it to flow away from the bales.
Ample data suggests that 50 percent or more of outside hay storage losses occur where bales touch the ground. Therefore, it may be more important to protect the bottoms, rather than the tops of bales. Placing bales on something that prevents direct contact with the soil surface and does not trap and hold moisture will reduce spoilage. Wooden pallets, railroad ties, or a bed of crushed rock have been used successfully to reduce wicking of moisture by bales stored on the ground.
Methods for improving storage of hay bales are limited only to producer imagination and ingenuity. Putting a little extra effort toward maintaining hay quality can reduce losses and improve profitability.