PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson
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September 17, 2019

In preparation for baling hay this summer (which went remarkably well, I might add), we added a new tool to our arsenal—a portable handheld hay moisture tester.

Correctly measuring the moisture content of hay is arguably the most important consideration for baling. Hay that is baled too wet can mold or, worse, heat up to extreme temperatures and spontaneously combust. Wet hay isn’t something to mess around with.

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Methods Differ for Measurement

On the bright side, it isn’t too difficult to judge the moisture content of hay. Given three sunny days of good drying weather, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Plus, it’s pretty easy to identify wet bales when they’re produced. Dry bales are light for their size and easy to handle. Wet bales give the impression they’re made of concrete, and if you insert your hand into the bale, it can feel damp to the touch.

Going by feel is a reasonable way for experienced hobby farmers to judge the moisture content of their hay. We’ve done it for years, setting aside heavy and wet bales to be cut open for closer examination. But if you lack years of experience handling hay (or if you just want some additional peace of mind), a portable hay moisture tester can help you.

Accuracy Has Its Benefits

We purchased our hay tester partly out of curiosity. We have no trouble identifying when bales are dry, but we wanted to measure the moisture content of the occasional heavy bales to see how wet they are and whether we’re being overly cautious in setting them aside. While opinions vary on how dry is ideal for different types and sizes of bales, less than 18 percent moisture content is considered a good target for small square bales.

Our hay tester was fast and easy to use. Essentially, it’s a little battery-powered box with a long rod attached. The instructions call for the testing rod to be inserted into the hay bale at a 45-degree angle. Once it’s in place, you hit the testing button and the device gives a readout in seconds. You can also use the tester prior to baling. Just scoop up some hay from a windrow and pack it tightly into a bucket to simulate the compression of a tight bale. Or, if you want to check the temperature of a questionable bale a day or two after baling, the tester provides this measurement as well.

Smaller handheld units start around $60; ones with additional features can cost around $200 to more than $400.

I was encouraged to discover that going by feel is reasonably reliable. The bales we deemed dry were well within the ideal range (with moisture content running about 13 percent). Meanwhile, we correctly set aside some of the heaviest bales, which came in closer to 19 percent. On the bright side, we learned some of the heavy bales—while marginally moister—were still only in the 16 percent to 17 percent range, so we quickly gave the green light to bales we might have otherwise set aside.

The Tester Saves Time & Effort

So the hay tester saved us some time and effort, which means a lot when it comes to baling hay. The best part? It hardly interrupted the flow of our unloading because testing any given bale took less than a minute.

If you want to enhance the scientific side of your next hay baling season, I encourage you to pick up a hay moisture tester. In addition to handheld meters, you can purchase units to install on a hay baler that provide a readout for every bale. Before long, you’ll be able to judge wet and dry bales just by feel, a good skill for any farmer to have.

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