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Dairy Focus: Protecting Hay More Important Than Ever

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
Covering hay bales cuts hay loss significantly.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

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

Earlier this summer, I expressed what county Extension agents are verifying: Unprecedented hay prices are the reality, mainly the result of hay buying pressure to supplement out-of-state demand.

Even though we looked relatively good in North Dakota, compared with the states deeply affected by the drought, as the summer wore on to yield little or no second cutting, in many cases, hay yields are off by 30 to 50 percent. This further adds to supply-and-demand concerns.

To feed ruminant animals such as beef cattle and sheep through the winter season, 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 failing to protect your forage.

Round bales, the most common form of baling, inherently are designed to shed water, but you still can lose 15 to 30 percent of a harvested hay crop if it is left outside uncovered. So if hay yields on a farm are 50 percent lower because of the weather and the producer does not normally cover all of his or her round-baled hay, he or she can cut this shortfall substantially by covering the hay.

Even farms that have invested in net-wrapped round bales but leave them outside will find that providing more protection from moisture will save them 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 to 35 percent on average.

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

University of Kentucky trials found net-wrapped bales still lose 15 to 25 percent of their total dry-matter hay on average when stored outside. Although much of the rain runs off the net-wrapped surface, enough soaks into the outer layer of the hay to cause deterioration. Also, the researchers found that much of the rain was running to the bottom of the bale and being absorbed by the hay where it contacts the soil surface, causing spoilage.

Some factors to keep in mind that affect hay loss are:

  • The amount of moisture the hay is exposed to, such as rainfall, snow, dew or ground moisture
  • The number of months the 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 same University of Kentucky study analyzed various forms of hay storage and found some significant results. Putting the bales inside under a roof is one of the best options, whether it is a steel-roof pole barn, older wooden barn or hoop-roofed barn. Total dry-matter losses are typically only 4 to 7 percent when the hay is stored inside and out of direct contact with the ground.

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

However, for the short term, plastic coverage offers protection in various forms. Renting an in-line plastic bale wrapper can protect dry round bales for less than $10 per ton. With a dry-matter loss of 4 to 7 percent, plastic coverage is just as good as inside storage, the same study showed.

Covering hay that’s stacked on a pad of stone or porous material with plastic tarps can keep the loss down to the same 4 to 7 percent level if the tarp can be secured well enough against the wind to stay in place.

Plastic bale sleeves slipped over the bale, leaving each end open, diminish rainfall and soil moisture entry into the bale, resulting in the same low-level loss of 4 to 7 percent. However, bale sleeves are labor-intensive because they are put on by hand, so they work best on smaller volumes of round bales.

Stacking uncovered bales on top of one another in a pyramid shape, with the bottom bales in direct contact with the ground, resulted in a 25 to 35 percent loss even though half the bales were off the ground. Net-wrapped bales on the ground suffered a 15 to 25 percent loss, and pyramid-stacked bales on stone or a porous pad suffered a 13 to 17 percent loss.

So, any method of protection is better than leaving the bale outside, exposed to the weather. In a short hay year such as this when all feeds will be high-priced, covering what hay you have is the most important step in determining ways to lessen the impact of the drought.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - Sept. 6, 2012

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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