NDSU Extension - Mercer County


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Protect Your Hay Bales


Submitted by Craig Askim, Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources

The drought of 2012 has most livestock producers in the Midwest and beyond scrambling for more hay.

Even though we fared relatively well in North Dakota compared to states deeply affected by the drought, hay yields are off by 30-50 percent. This further adds to supply-and-demand concerns.

To feed ruminant animals such as beef cattle and sheep through the winter, many livestock producers are looking for ways to stretch their feed resources. Two of the quickest ways to waste this precious commodity are to delay hauling and to fail to protect the forage.

Round bales, the most common form of bale, are inherently designed to shed water, but 15 to 30 percent of a harvested hay crop can be lost if it is left outside uncovered. So, if hay yields are 50 percent lower due to weather conditions and the producer does not normally cover all of his or her round-baled hay, the producer can cut this shortfall substantially just by covering the hay.

Even farms that have invested in net-wrapped round bales but leave them outside will find that providing more moisture protection will save hay. Research at various Midwest universities has revealed that round-baled, twine-tied hay sitting on the ground uncovered will suffer a total loss of 20-35 percent on average.

Net-wrapped round bales have become very popular, and many assume that net wrapping protects bales from rainfall. Net wrapping does protect hay to an extent because it makes the bale surface smoother and denser so it can shed water, but the advantage is not great.

Some factors that affect hay loss are:

* The amount of moisture the hay is exposed to, such as rainfall, snow, or ground moisture.

* The number of months hay is exposed before it is fed: a wet summer and fall will cause more loss than a dry one.

* The air temperature during the storage period (higher temperatures lead to greater losses).

* The type of hay (for example, alfalfa and second or third cuttings): The more digestible the hay is for animals, the more digestible it will be for bacteria that spoil hay.

The best way to reduce round-bale hay spoilage is to cover the bales to keep rainfall off and break the contact with the soil so the bales do not draw moisture from the ground.

The ultimate in hay storage options is building a structure. Of course, this is a long-term investment, but depending on your needs, it can pay for itself in 10 - 15 years if hay is stored each year, especially with today's higher hay prices.

Covering hay that's stacked on a pad of stone or porous material with plastic tarps can keep the loss down if the tarp can be secured against the wind.

Any method of protection is better than leaving the bale outside, exposed to the weather. In a short hay year such as this when feed is high-priced, covering hay is an important step to lessen the impact of drought.

Source:  J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension Dairy Specialist

Until next time!

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