Hay prices have doubled or more in some parts of the country this season. As the drought conditions persist and continue to expand, trouble making hay continues. Therefore, making the most of your hay is crucial this season. This article will examine recommended hay storage tips and thoughts about what to do with unharvested hay.
Outside Storage Hay Loss Factors
iGrow a service of the SDSU extension posted an article by Taylor Grussing and Karla Hernandez titled, “Storing and Stacking Hay”. The authors consider factors to maximize the forage quality while and minimizing the waste.
The article identifies three factors that affect outside storage losses. They are:
Bale Density: With dry hay (10-20%), the denser the bale, the lower the amount of spoilage that occurs. The density of round bales should be a minimum of 10 lbs of hay per cubic foot.
Field operations: Uniform swaths, sized to match the recommendations of the baler being used help produce uniform and dense hay bales.
Weather conditions: For hay stored outside, increased precipitation results in greater chances of storage losses. Stacking and storage methods noted below can help reduce outside storage loss.
Hay Stacking Best Practices
Additionally, the authors proceed to identify five key considerations for stacking hay. The first one is that bales should be removed from harvest areas as soon as possible. This will allow for uniform regrowth and the possibility of additional cuttings depending on the forage type.
Second round bales that are stacked alongside harvest areas should be oriented flat end to flat end. See the image below as an illustration. They should run north and south. An east and west orientation may deteriorate on north facing surfaces if not used before next summer.
Third stacks should be placed in a well-drained and non-shaded area to prevent spoilage. An article by the University of Florida suggested a rock pad to help with drainage concerns.
Fourth, as illustrated above, leave 3 feet of spacing between the rows. This will provide adequate air flow, sun exposure for drying and reduce excess moisture.
Fifth and lastly, when removing from the field and stacking in a hay yard, be sure the bales are cool and dry. This will reduce potential fire danger.
Hay Storage Options
There are several hay storage options. The typical options for hay storage include:
- Stacking outside with no cover
- Outside on protected ground such as tires, pallets, or rock
- Outside covered with tarp or plastic wrap
- Inside a barn
The key consideration is cost of each option verse the potential for lost hay. This season the typical outcomes as a result of this calculation for how to best store your hay may be different. The increasing price and scarcity of hay may tip the scales in favor of choosing a more expensive hay storage option.
Depending on how much has is harvested and used each year, it may be cost effective to improve hay storage methods. In general advantages to storing hay outside, is unlimited space, height and number of bales in a stack. Yet, advantages of placing hay in a barn include maintaining better forage quality, decreased moisture and less spoilage. However, space inside barns are limited and careful stacking is needed to preserve structural integrity of the barn.
The authors conclude with some sound advice about what can be done today. Assessing your current stacking method and seeking to improve them is a sound first step. Additionally, understand your current hay inventory factoring in anticipated waste. Compare this to your winter hay needs of the cowherd. If you determine that sourcing forage this season makes sense be sure to purchase quality hay. Confirming the quality with a nutrient analysis may be a very wise.
Lastly, begin tracking hay waste each year and compare the cost of wasted hay to the cost of improving hay storage on your farm long term.
All of the recommendations above assume you were able to harvest the hay. In cases where your field has experienced excessive rain such, as was the case in the eastern upper peninsula of Michigan last season, harvesting your hay may not be possible. Under these circumstances, Jim Isleib of Michigan State University extension answered the question he posed in his article title “Should I Burn Off my Old, Unharvested Hay or Chop it Back onto the Field?”.
If left unmanaged, unharvested, standing forage can result in a dense mat on the soil surface over winter and interfere with spring growth and hay harvest next year.
The grower has three viable options.
- Burn off the fields or
- Chop the standing hay and return it to the field surface
- Graze the field – assuming livestock and the field is fenced
Isleib performs analysis comparing the first two options. At the end he reaches this conclusion.
Based on this estimate of nutrient return value, there is not a compelling reason to choose one method over the other. However, chopping avoids the potential problems associated with burning.
While Isleib doesn’t explicitly state that option 3 may be best, in his final paragraph he does highlight the advantages of grazing over chopping.
Trampling is more effective than chopping at returning organic matter to the soil because it doesn’t create swaths and the manure is more available to plants.
Hay is extremely valuable this season given the drought conditions many ranchers are facing. Because of the increased value of hay, growers should assess their hay stacking practices and storage options. Making such improvements and potentially incurring greater storage costs may pay off as result. Meanwhile, if unable to harvest hay and grazing isn’t an option, chopping may be your best option.
Image Courtesy Bromleyfarmsupply.com