How To Store Hay To Make It Last

Make your hay harvest last with these tips for efficient hay storage.

by Sue Weaver
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Sky-high machinery and fuel costs and the lack of affordable haying-crew labor is driving up the cost of putting up hay. At the same time, hay shortages have become a way of life. When you harvest quality hay, it’s dollar-wise to preserve it so it lasts.

Putting Up Hay

Hay is a generic term for grass or legume plants that have been cut, dried and stored for use as animal feed, particularly for grazing species, such as cattle, equines, llamas, alpacasgoats and sheep. Because feed changes upset some animals’ digestive systems, it’s advisable to put up enough of the same type of hay to last a season. To preserve its nutritional value, put up no more than you’ll feed within a year of harvest. Keep these things in mind when you plan how much you’re going to grow and package.

Hay can be bundled in three basic ways:

  • Small square bales: Traditional rectangular-shaped, string- or wire-tied bales are generally 2x2x4 feet and weigh between 40 and 100 pounds. While small square bales are ideal for ease of feeding, putting them up, is more labor-, time- and cost-intensive than baling large round or large square bales.
  • Large square bales: Rectangular bales—generally 3x3x8 feet in size and weighing 600 to 700 pounds—are easy to use, as they break off in flakes like small square bales. However, you’ll need a tractor with a loader spike to move them.
  • Large round bales: Ranging between 500 and 1,800 pounds, these bales are the most economical type for farmers to bale, but they have several drawbacks. They’re designed to be fed whole, in the field, with or without a hay ring (a cage designed to prevent livestock from lying in or pulling down hay and wasting it). It’s possible to remove individual feedings by gradually unwinding the bale and forking them off, but it’s hard work and often results in a lot of waste. Once opened and exposed to the elements, large round bales start to spoil. Unless you have enough livestock to polish off a bale in two to three days, this isn’t the best option.

If you decide to bale hay in large bales, wrap them with net wrap or plastic twine to  reduce bale sag and help maintain bale shape. Plastic twine resists weathering, insects and rodents better than natural-fiber twines. Twine should be snug and spaced 6 to 10 inches apart. Densely packed bales are also more stable when stacked.

Do’s and Don’ts of Hay Storage

Indoor Storage

Protect valuable hay from the elements by storing it under cover in a building that doesn’t leak and has good ventilation. Choose a building on an elevated, well-drained site. Hay is highly flammable, so you don’t want it overhead if your main barn catches fire. It’s also a potential source of fire, putting your barn in jeopardy should it ignite. If you can’t store hay in a separate building, keep only small amounts in the barn at one time. Keep the hay away from trucks, machinery, or any type of heat source and fire accelerants, like gasoline, kerosene, oil and aerosol cans.

Organization is key to make sure hay doesn’t go to waste. Store hay where it’s accessible. Don’t stack hay higher than you can safely move it—this is especially important when stacking large round bales. And stack new hay behind older bales so you can feed the older hay first.

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Hay stacked on bare ground or concrete wicks moisture up through the bottom tiers, ruining the hay. Materials you can use to help insulate hay from wet soil or concrete and provide some ventilation include telephone poles, wooden pallets and tires.

If storing small square bales, stack the bottom layer on their sides with the strings facing sideways instead of up. The uneven surface allows better air circulation. Stack the second layer with the strings facing up, perpendicular to the first layer. Stack the third layer perpendicular to the second layer and so on to lock the stack in place and make it more stable. If you decide to stack large bales, arrange them the same way, but only if you have a tractor capable of lifting the bales.

Outdoor Storage

If the hay storage area is open on one or more sides, or if it’s a shed with only a roof, cover the fully-cured hay with a tarp to keep out weather and light. Sunlight bleaches hay, causing it to lose nutritional value, especially protein and vitamin A.

If fully outdoors, cover stacks of square bales (large or small) with tarps, securing the tarps with strong tie-downs. A sloped top, created by pyramiding the final layers, sheds snow and rain better than a flat one. Use strong, sturdy tarps free of holes or rips. Check tarps on a regular basis to make sure they’re securely tied down.

Round bales should also be stored on the twine or wrap side. They store well when flat ends are butted end-to-end in long rows. Orient rows north and south so prevailing winds won’t create snow drifts and so both sides of the row receive sunlight for drying. Don’t arrange them in a row with the twine sides touching, creating a water-absorbing valley between bales. If bales must be stored side by side, leave at least 2 feet between bales. Space adjacent rows at least 3 feet apart so water from one row doesn’t run off onto another. The round bales shed water better so tarps aren’t necessary.

Keep in mind, a certain amount of every large bale stored outside invariably spoils, depending on whether it’s twine or net wrapped, how much rain and snow falls during the storage period, what kind of soil it’s stored upon and the amount of space between the bales.

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