Ahh... that sweet smell of fresh-cut hay. You've worked hard to get those bales put up, investing anywhere from $10-15/round bale after calculating time, labor and equipment costs. Choosing a proper storage method can preserve bales, maximizing nutritional value and savings.
Dave Sanson, Louisiana State University cattle nutritionist, says a cow-calf producer's most costly item is nutrition -- the lion's share being winter-feed costs.
"So if you can cut your hay losses by 20% just by storing it properly, you can dramatically affect the bottom line," he says.
Recognizing there's no one "right way" for everyone, producers should consider three factors in determining their optimum storage method.
- Start with the hay's quality, or value. There's a big dollar difference in a 25% loss on $120/ton hay vs. $40/ton forages. "The better the quality, the more you'll save putting it under storage," Sanson says.
- Evaluate the likelihood of spoilage in your climate.
"A little bit of rain and cold damp days are just as bad as a downpour followed by summer sunshine," says Dennis Buckmaster, Purdue ag engineer.
Spoilage, or weathering, is the result of moisture getting into bales, and temperature accelerating bacterial breakdown of the cellulose. Warmer temps combined with moisture increase bale deterioration. Wind can also influence drying time.
Moisture gets into bales in three ways: rainfall, snowmelt and humidity. The tops of bales absorb moisture from rain and snowmelt, the bottom wicks moisture from the ground.
- Consider the length of time bales will be exposed to weathering. First-cutting forages are more susceptible than hay harvested in the fall, depending on when it's fed.
Outside and uncovered -- Storing round bales outside in long rows with ends butted against each other is still a common storage method, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist.
Such bales lose 25-30% of their total digestible nutrients. Sanson says this level of loss in a 1,150-lb. bale could meet the energy requirements of a 1,000-lb. cow for 16 days.
Placing a row of round bales laid on end, often repeated with a second row and then topped by a row of bales butted end-to-end is another method of outdoor, uncovered storage. Anderson says it's critical that bales on the top form a tight cigar and be the same or larger diameter as the bales they rest on so that moisture can't get down to bales turned on end.
"It's better than just a row of bales, but it's not good," Buckmaster says. As far as he's concerned, uncovered outdoor storage is just another way to create manure without the cow. "You go to all that effort to roll it up, just to let it rot?" he asks.
Outside and covered -- "If you can't afford a barn, outside and covered is a very economical way to store hay," says Sanson, who uses tarps to cover a 3-2-1 pyramid of round bales. Buckmaster estimates such a system costs $10/ton, accounting for labor, material, machinery and site preparation, with dry matter loss.
But that's only if everything goes right. Sanson suggests constructing a proper "pad," finding the right type of tarp and then properly securing it.
"When that water comes off the tarp, you want it to hit the ground and flow away from the hay," Sanson says. Pad construction consists of raising the ground 2-6 in. the width of the tarp by using topsoil or other materials. Locating the pad near wind protection can reduce wind damage to tarps.
Buckmaster recommends that, for three-high pyramid stacks, tarps be 5 ft. wide for every 1 ft. of bale diameter. Thus, a 25-ft.-wide tarp will cover 5-ft.-diameter bales stacked three high in a triangular formation. Stack ends should be left open to facilitate air movement.
Sanson recommends using a breathable tarp that allows air to move freely but keeps the rain out.
Once the pad is prepared and the stack built and covered, securing the tarp is another challenge. Some tarp makers provide rope that acts like a harness over bales. Sanson has found success using house-trailer anchors secured in a dirt pad -- cautioning that you'll have a foot of metal sticking up around where you stack hay. He's also tried driving fence posts in at an angle, only to have wind pull them up.
Tarps should be checked and tightened each week, Sanson says, noting the entire stack will settle in two weeks.
"If you take the right attitude, they're pretty low maintenance," Sanson says. He was able to use tarps for 7-8 years before a hurricane ruined them.
Big square bales lend themselves well to outdoor stacking, but still need top protection. The same basic principles apply: protect the top, prevent rain from soaking up underneath, and allow stacks to breathe.
Barn storage -- "Bite the bullet upfront; it will pay off short term," Buckmaster says in regard to producers looking to store hay for the long haul. About a 4% loss in bales can be expected from barn storage, and costs run $18-22/ton after penciling in machinery, labor and structure costs.
He sees a dual benefit. When not used for hay storage, the building can be used to house equipment, seed, etc.
Like all storage systems, it's important to consider site preparation. Drainage and accessibility are key, but the structure should be built based on how you plan to stack.
Round bale storage within a building can push outward on walls (imagine the tendency of sections of PVC pipe to roll). If you plan to store round bales in such a structure, reinforced walls are needed to handle the load, Buckmaster says.
To eliminate side-load against walls, consider storing bales on their flat ends.
"You can get more bales in the same space, or require a smaller barn to store the same amount of hay," Buckmaster says. Bales will retain their shape better, there will be less stress on the barn, and it's a better utilization of space.