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Protect your hay investment

Protect your hay investment

Managing hay properly could save livestock producers as much as 25 percent of their hay investment, possibly as much as $36 per bale fed.

Managing hay properly could save livestock producers as much as 25 percent of their hay investment, possibly as much as $36 per bale fed.  Depending on what dollar value you place on your hay and how you are storing and feeding it, you could very easily be losing just that much with every bale you feed. 

It is hard to believe just how much volume of hay is in the outer layer of each round bale.  Traditionally we tend to sacrifice this outer layer and accept that loss as a normal part of feeding.  However, if that outer sacrifice layer is 4 inches on a 5 foot by 5foot round bale we just lost 24 percent of the bale. The percentage of moisture in hay at storage directly affects its nutrient and dry matter losses. The higher the moisture content at storage, the greater the losses. 

High moisture conditions allow hay to heat up, which causes losses. The degree of heating that develops during storage depends on the moisture of the hay and its density, size and shape in storage. Tight round bales suffer fewer losses than loose ones.

The main factor in controlling nutrient loss or retention in storage is exposure to moisture. Research has shown that a firm round bale stored outside for one year loses 22 percent of its dry matter. When stored outside for two years, the same bale loses 25 percent dry matter — meaning that only 75 percent of its original weight remains for feeding. The most nutrient losses occur on the outer portion of the bale.

In a study in Overton, Texas, large round bales of coastal bermudagrass hay were stored for 112 days. During that period, the protein content dropped by almost 2 percent in the middle of the bale and by 14 percent on the outside. The digestible dry matter decreased 11 percent in the middle and 32 percent on the outer surface. 

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A round bale’s greatest loss occurs at the bottom where it touches the soil. Purdue University conducted a study of round bales stored inside, outside on the ground or outside on crushed rocks and found bales stored inside retained 92 percent of original weight, bales stored outside on crushed rock retained 85 percent of original weight, and bales stored outside on the ground retained only 76 percent of original weight.

Storage recommendations

Results indicate that producers should store bales in well-drained areas where moisture does not accumulate and water will run off, preferably in a barn.  In fact, storing round bales in a barn can pay for the barn.  At $100, hay producers lose $16 per bale by storing outside versus inside.  Assuming you can build a 40-foot by 100-foot by 16-foot barn for around $25,000, a 5-year note at 6 percent interest would require about $6,000 annual payment.  This size of barn should store around 420 5-foot by 5-foot bales, saving $6,720 per year in hay loss over storing round bales outdoors.   

 If you store round bales outside, make sure they are stored on well drained areas, up slope, in a north – south configuration with at least two feet between rows of bales. This will maximize sun exposure and drying after rainfall. 

The amount of hay lost during feeding depends on the feeding system and on the amount allocated per animal per feeding time. An efficient feeding system should keep losses to a minimum. Feeding losses are caused mostly by trampling, leaf shatter, chemical and physical deterioration, fecal contamination, over consumption and refusal.

To some extent, you can control losses by proper management. Management decisions include feeding method, intervals between feedings, amount of hay fed at one time, weather conditions and the number of animals fed.

The largest hay losses occur when large hay stacks are fed without animal restrictions. The lowest hay losses result from hand feeding livestock the amount they will consume at one time. However, the labor expense for the big hay stack is lower, and hand feeding requires extensive labor. The most economical feeding system is somewhere in between.

When feeding large round bales, you must use some restriction barrier to limit animal access. Barriers include electric wires, feeding racks, panels, wagons, gates and other items. Feeding racks are now available in various sizes and shapes.

Research conducted at Overton show that feeding large round bales free choice resulted in a 24 percent hay loss. Feeding identical bales in a feed rack cut the loss to 4 percent. (Standard small bales sustain a 6 percent loss when fed free choice and a 3 percent loss when some type of restricted access is used.) This 24 percent loss from free-choice feeding justifies a feeding rack to conserve feed and money.

Using our $100 hay example again, feeding in a rack saves $20 per bale over feeding hay free choice. Therefore, if we convinced you to store round bales in a barn and feed in a rack, rather than store outside and feed free choice your feed cost just dropped by $36 per bale.  For more information on hay feeding and storage refer to AgriLife Extension publication E-170 “Making, Storing, and Feeding Hay,” or contact our office at 361.767.5223 or on the web at   


Also of interest on Southwest Farm Press:

Drought limits 2013 hay supplies

Pasture and hay conditions key to beef herd recovery

Producers should be aware of potential for hay fires

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