There’s nothing like making hay while the sun’s shining. And that’s what we do all summer, getting ready for the long winter that we know lies ahead. So if we are going to go through all the trouble of making hay, shouldn’t we take a little extra time to store appropriately?
The thing is that hay has a shelf life. Just like the gallon of milk in your fridge, hay will eventually turn into inedible mush with no nutritional value. And just like we know that milk doesn’t last too long sitting on the counter, hay will deteriorate rapidly if left in a wet, windless environment.
The key with keeping the quality in our hay is to first recognize how moisture affects the product. Obviously if a bale is put up wet, it can have problems with mold and even catch on fire. But even if a bale is put up correctly, it will leach nutrients if water is allowed to permeate the bale over time.
Water leaching into bales allows for the growth of yeasts and molds, which rob the bale of the nutrients we would prefer to give to our cows. If there is enough mold growth, we can see health problems occur in the cow herd, including thriftiness, decreased feed intake, and abortions. Feedlot cattle are not immune to these challenges either, but because less of their diet is forage-based the effects are typically more muted as compared to cows.
The process of weatherproofing your bales begins with the baling process. For large round bales, having that outside layer as tight as possible decreases the permeability of the bale to water. Net wrap does a better job of keeping these bales tight than twine, but if twine is to be used the gold standard is to keep the twine strands no more than 6-8” apart.
Once the bales are made, move them to a storage location that is well-drained. This location should have enough slope to let water and snow melt run off. If practical, the best practice is to set the bales on crushed rock so water cannot collect under the bales either.
While a common practice, stacking round bale piles is one of the worst ways to store bales. Because of the shape of a round bale, when they are stacked they create depressions that allow for water and snow to pool on top of the bales, which slowly leach into the bale. This leaching negates the positive aspects of stacking bales to keep more of them off the ground.
Rather than stacking, place bales flat end to flat end in a long line, running north to south. If you have multiple bale lines, keep these lines six feet apart. This will give you room to mow between the bales if weeds or grass starts to get tall.
The reason for this arrangement is to maximize airflow. Bales running east to west function as a windbreak to the next line of bales, the same way our tree groves do for our homes. Weeds between rows also block the wind. As long as the air can flow, we can keep our hay’s number one enemy, moisture, at bay.
Though it takes a little extra time, making tight bales and storing them correctly is key to preserving their nutritional value for the winter. After the mess we had last year with low-quality hay, we need to take extra steps to ensure we safeguard all the nutrition our hay has to offer. Doing so will decrease the amount of supplemental feed our cows will need, increasing our profit potential for the herd.