How to cut bale and store hay

wikiHow is a “wiki,” similar to Wikipedia, which means that many of our articles are co-written by multiple authors. To create this article, volunteer authors worked to edit and improve it over time.

This article has been viewed 76,739 times.

Dry hay harvest and baling is an important part of life for ranchers and farmers who have foraging herbivorous animals, like sheep, cattle and horses. A good hay crop is defined by weather, field conditions and plant reseeding, as well as the farmer’s timing and hard work. Hay is usually stored in round or square bales that are created with modern machinery.

You Might Also Like

  1. ↑
  2. ↑
  3. ↑
  4. ↑
  5. ↑
  6. ↑

About This Article

With modern machinery, cutting, baling, and storing your hay has never been easier. Cut your hay when the leaves have developed fully but before the seed heads have fully grown. This will provide the best nutrition for your animals. Wait until you have 3 days of dry weather so you can cure and bale the hay without it getting wet. Cut your hay with a sickle mower or sickle haybine if you have a small or medium-sized field or a disk mower, if you have a large field. Then, use a baler at a steady, moderate speed, which will be the most effective. Store your hay under shelter or cover it with a tarp sheet to protect it from the rain. For more tips, including how to cure your hay, read on!

Why would we do this, when it’s so easy to use a tractor and haying equipment? Well, if you’ve priced that equipment recently, you know the answer to that question. The price is astronomical. And if you only have a few acres, or just a few animals to feed, it isn’t worth the money we’d have to shell out.

How about custom haying – hiring someone to cut and bale the hay? Custom baling is cheaper than buying your own haying equipment, but most ranchers who do custom baling have a minimum number of acres they’ll cut for you. Our acreage isn’t large enough for them to bother with.

Yes, it’s labor intensive. And while we no longer do this – we are many years older now, and hubby (“the Chief”) has health issues – we did it ourselves for many years.

How we cut our hay

Our hay field is about 10 acres, so obviously we worked on it a little at a time, and it took us most of the summer to get completely around the field.

The Chief cut the grass with our DR brush-mower – or whatever brand we happen to have. We’ve gone through a few of them over the years!

Once the grass is dry – which takes about one day in our hot Oklahoma summers – I use a fan rake to rake it up in windrows.

How to bale hay by hand

Making hay bales, whether by hand or by machine, is simply a matter of saving space.

So we (or rather, the Chief) built this hand baler using these [rather vague] plans.

We used baling wire to wrap the bales because we had two rolls of it in the garage, left by the former property owner.

The hand baler plans suggest using baling twine, which is much faster to set up. We bought a box of twine, opting for the lighter gauge because it was cheaper and our bales were smaller than the usual commercial bales, so we thought we wouldn’t need the heavier twine.

The lighter-gauge twine we bought tended to break when pulled tight around our hand-made bales. The heavier twine would have worked better. We ended up using the baling wire we had on hand instead.

How to set up the baler to make a new bale

Tie a loop in the twine and attach it to the nails on the back – or make a small circle or loop in the baling wire and slip it over the nail. Repeat for another length of twine or wire and attach to the nail or cup hook on the other side of the plunger.

Run these two lengths of twine or wire over the top and down into the interior of the baler.

Once you finish tying up the bale, the wire/twine slips out when you remove the bale. It’s quite ingenious.

So, first we string those two wires or twine pieces from the nails in back, over the back of the baler and into the interior, and between the eyes and the board. Then the door of the baler is shut – held closed with a hook and eye at the top and another set at the bottom – and the bottom ends of the twine or wire are fed out through the slits in the door.

Filling the baler with hay

Hay is added through the opening in the top. When full, the plunger is used to pack down the hay, then more is added, plunging after each addition.

Finally, the end of the wire or twine is removed from the little nails on the back and laid across the top of the hay, then out through the slits in the front of the door.

Push the plunger down again to compress the hay and tie the bale up tightly using the two ends of the twine or wire.

Release the plunger, open the door, and remove the bale of hay. It will slip right out if you set up the twine correctly. As I said before, ingenious!

How big are the handmade bales? My best guess is that they are about one-third to half the size of a regular small square bale. They’re not compressed as tightly as a commercial bale, so they aren’t exactly equivalent.

Yes, they are smaller than commercial square bales, but they take up much less space than loose hay and are easier to feed.

We baled enough of our hand-cut hay from our 10-12 acre field to feed our herd of dairy goats and two horses over the winter. Your yield will vary depending on the size of your field, the type of grass you grow, and the amount of rainfall in your area.

Additional photos of the baler

These photos were taken about a year after making the baler, and you can see that the wood has weathered. I suggest storing the baler out of the weather – or painting it – so it will last longer.

Also, please excuse the junk pile behind the baler. I should have moved it to take the photos.

The Chief agrees that the plans online are pretty vague, and he hopes these photos are helpful. Unfortunately there are no step-by-step directions for building the baler. We did not develop the plans or write those vague directions.


(Please notify me if links are broken. We do not own the plans nor the websites where the plans are posted, and occasionally websites are removed or reorganized. I do try to keep the links current.)

A Low-Cost Pine Straw Box Baler from the North Carolina Forest Service.

This website has directions to build a hand-powered leaf and hay baler. While this one is a different type – horizontal rather than vertical – the principle is the same, and some might appreciate the step-by-step building instructions included with this one.

The images below contain affiliate links. You can read my disclosures here.

Comments have been disabled due to the high amount of spam received. I apologize for any inconvenience that may cause. You are welcome to contact me by email using this form.

My hope is to inspire you, and to encourage your homesteading plans and your dreams of a simple, self-reliant, God-dependent life. You can follow me at:
Facebook | Pinterest | Subscribe

It’s been an interesting summer thus far here in eastern South Dakota. In early June, we were praying for rain, worried about what August would bring as our summer forages were already turning brown. By the end of June, we’d had flash-flooding across the state, hail storms that pummeled corn fields, tornados that decimated farm buildings and lightning strikes that killed calves. Although our locale escaped the worst of it, we are still dealing with an abundance of moisture, which has made putting up high-quality hay a challenge.

In his most recent Hay & Forage Minute newsletter, Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension forage specialist, recently wrote about how to handle rained-on hay and how best to store it from now until winter. Here are three tips for handling and storing wet hay that I picked up from his piece:

1. To bale or not to bale. That is the question.

“Sometimes, the big problem with rained-on hay is the long-term damage to the regrowing plants,” says Anderson. “Driving over the field repeatedly — trying to turn hay to hasten its drying — will injure regrowth and can cause soil compaction, especially if the ground is wet and soft.”

Anderson recommends moving the hay any way possible — bale it; chop it, or even blow it back on the ground as mulch.

“You may need to damage plants by driving on them to turn hay to speed drying and get sunlight to plants underneath. But do it anyway to prevent old windrows from ruining the rest of your haying year,” he advises.

Subscribe now to Cow-Calf Weekly to get the latest industry research and information in your inbox every Friday!

2. Watch for problems in damaged strips.

“If the wet windrows lay there too long, the plants underneath will be smothered,” he explains. “This not only lowers yield, it creates a terrible weed problem as grasses and broadleaves infest the killed strips. These weeds will contaminate all future cuttings. In addition, if rained-on hay windrows are left in the field until next cutting, they frequently will plug your mower, both slowing you down and maybe even expanding your vocabulary.”

Anderson says the quality of the new hay will also be low, which means more than one cutting suffers from having windrows getting rained on. “Insects and weeds may invade, and then need treating to prevent further problems,” he says. “There isn’t much of a positive payback managing rained-on hay, but to ignore it is even more expensive.”

3. Store hay to keep moisture at bay.

While storing hay indoors would be ideal, it’s not practical for many producers. Anderson offers some outdoor storage techniques that help minimize loss from now until winter.

“Over one-fourth of your hay’s nutrients can be lost due to weathering between now and feeding next winter,” he says. “To minimize these losses, begin by making dense, evenly formed bales or stacks. They will shed water better and sag less than a soft core or less dense package. Use net wrap or plastic twine spaced no more than 4 in. apart on round bales to maintain bale shape and provide a smooth surface that encourages water runoff.”

Anderson recommends storing hay on elevated, well-drained spots that will prevent the bales from soaking up moisture from wet soil or standing water.

“Especially avoid terrace valleys,” he recommends. “Also avoid fences or tree lines that cause snow to drift onto hay or that prevent wind and sunshine from drying off wet bales. Often our biggest mistake is placing bales so water that runs off of one bale ends up soaking into an adjacent bale. Never stack round bales during the rainy season unless they are covered or unless they will be fed very soon. And avoid placing bales in a row with the twine or wrapped ends touching one another.”

He says the best way to store round bales is to make sure there is 1 ft. of air space on all sides of the bale for good ventilation. Round bales should be in rows with the flat ends butted together to form a cigar-like shape, Anderson explains.

“Orient these rows north and south so prevailing winds will not cause snow drifts and so both sides of the row can receive sunlight for drying,” he suggests.

With these guidelines, Anderson says ranchers can lower storage losses, increase feed quality, and improve animal performance.

As I write this blog post, it’s thundering outside and the clouds are darkening, so it looks like our plans to cut hay today won’t pan out. But I will keep these suggestions in mind as we put up hay this summer. Although these are pretty basic suggestions, they are good reminders as we round up forage for the winter months.

How is haying going in your neck of the woods? Have you had a wet summer, or are you praying for rain? How are you dealing with the conditions in your area? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tips to preserve the quality of round and square bales.

By Tharran Gaines

| Photos by Jamie Cole

Store bales indoors if possible.

1) Store them indoors if possible. Nobody knows that better than Jerrold Siemens, who operates Siefor Farms, Ltd., with his sons, Adrian and Chris, near Morris, Manitoba. Together they produce approximately 900 acres of commercial alfalfa and nearly 50,000 bales of straw with five Hesston® by Massey Ferguson Model 2170 3 x 3 large square balers. As a general rule, the Siemens bale their alfalfa as soon as it starts into the bud stage, then store the bales in two giant storage sheds to preserve color and quality.

2) Bale at the right moisture level. “Each of our balers has a moisture sensor in the bale chamber that is monitored from the tractor cab,” says Adrian Siemens, noting that they try to bale at moisture levels below 15%. “But we carry a moisture probe in each tractor as well. Once we manually probe a bale, we know where it’s at in relationship to the monitor and can keep an eye on it the rest of the day.”

3) Leave space for bales to breathe. “Generally, we start adding preservative when moisture levels get much above 15 to 16%,” says Chris. “In addition, we try to leave a space between each stack of bales when we put them in the shed. That allows the air to move around the bales so they maintain their green color. Obviously, if we used preservative, they were baled a little damp, so they need space to breathe.”

University Extension specialists also recommend leaving a minimum of 2 feet of space between the roof of a building and the top surface of stacked round or square bales for added circulation.

4) Keep a log of inventory. Even bales stored indoors suffer some dry matter loss due to humidity and microbial action. So it’s important to separate cuttings and to know which hay is the oldest … and be able to get to it, rather than having it trapped in the back of the barn.

Lawrence Drost, who owns a commercial hay operation near Hartley, Texas, tests every cutting and sells the crop based on relative feed value. He also marks each stack by field number and cutting; hence, a stack marked D32 would be from the second cutting on field D3.

“I also store everything in a barn,” he says. “I’ve tried tarps in the field, but tarps don’t last long with our winds. We were constantly fighting the elements until we went to enclosed storage.”

Quality Loss Outside

According to university studies, dry matter losses in hay bales stored outdoors can reach 50% or more, depending on bale type, bale quality, storage conditions and length in storage. Even 2 inches of weathered hay on a round bale can represent more than 10% of the bale’s dry matter.

Date published: 26 June 2020

Data released by Agrisearch indicates that during the period March to May 2020 grass growth across Northern Ireland was up to 28 per cent lower than would normally be expected for this period.

This was in part due to the prolonged dry period over these months. Although this allowed many farmers to make high dry matter first cut silage, it will have inevitably impacted on the quantity produced.

Phelim Connolly, an Agri-Environment Adviser at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) said: “Many farmers will now turn their attention to ensuring sufficient good quality second cut silage is harvested to meet winter feed requirements.

“Baled silage can be an excellent way to build up silage reserves, through the removal of excess grass supplies. However given the current wet weather, wilting may not always be possible leaving an increased pollution risk from bales produced. So, care must be taken when choosing a suitable location to store silage bales.

Silage effluent continues to be one of the most potent sources of pollution on farms and is 200 times more polluting than untreated sewage. On entering a waterway, it causes the oxygen to be rapidly removed from the water with devastating effects on animal and plant life.”

The regulations regarding silage and slurry storage are contained in Nutrient Action Programme (NAP) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 which is available to view on the DAERA website. The NAP Regulations state that silage bales must be stored at least 10 meters away from a waterway and managed in such a way as to prevent seepage into a waterway.

Phelim Connolly continued: “There are several key points to take into consideration when storing hay bales.

“Where possible, grass should be wilted to at least 25 per cent dry matter before baling because this his will reduce the risk of effluent seepage. Also, silage bales must be stored at least 10 metres away from any waterway and managed in such a way as to prevent seepage into a waterway.

“When choosing a storage site, ensure it is level and carefully assess the potential polluting risk to a waterway. Field or yard piped drainage systems should also be considered as storing too close to these systems could allow any escaping effluent to enter a waterway directly.

“Also, if bales are stored on concrete, the effluent must be collected in the same way as effluent from a silage pit. And, if you’re storing on a hard core or stone base ensure the aggregate size is not too large as open spaces within it can accelerate movement of effluent seepage and enter groundwater systems quicker.

“In addition, if you’re storing bales in a field then try to place them close to a track or lane. This will help avoid excess rutting and compaction of land during winter months when it is more likely to be saturated.

“Finally, when it comes to using baled silage, remember it must not be opened within 10 mtres of a waterway – including field drains and sheughs. Also, care should be taken to ensure that the residual effluent contained in the removed wrap does not escape to a waterway.

“And, remember to dispose of bale wrap in accordance with the Waste Management Regulations. All waste plastics used on farm should be recycled as a preferred option. If recycling is not an available option it should be taken to a licensed landfill site for disposal.”

Texas AgriLife Extension Service

It’s springtime in Central Texas and while you might still be trying to cut and/or bale those first hay cuttings of the year, you should consider the moisture content. The moisture content during baling and storage can considerably effect to the nutritive value of the hay. Hay baled with high moisture content levels can have negative impacts such as hay spoilage, barn fires, and decreased nutrition.

A natural event, commonly referred to as “heating,” occurs when growing forages are cut and continue to give off heat due to respiration. Plant and mold respiration generates lots of heat; providing proper growing conditions for bacteria. If wet hay is baled while it is too wet, microbe populations will flourish and intensify the heating process. This results in hay that is lower in nutritive value and dry matter availability.

Allowing cut hay to dry (or cure) will slow down the respiration process. Respiration slows down as moisture content decreases but will not completely stop until plant moisture reaches 20 percent or less. Moisture levels above 20 percent allow the respiration process to continue and mold to develop, which then produces heat.

If the internal temperature of a bale of hay exceeds 130 degrees F, a chemical reaction occurs within the bales that release flammable gases that can ignite. So when harvesting, the most effective way to reduce the potential of spontaneous combustion in hay bales is to make sure the cut has dried sufficiently prior to baling. Consider the weather conditions because this greatly influences the rate at which hay dries. Cut hay that has been rained on or is slightly wet should be mechanically teddered, or fluffed, to speed up the drying process.

Moisture levels for safe storage vary with the size and density of the bale and the type of hay. Hay in small square bales should be baled between 15 and 22 percent moisture to minimize leaf shattering, molding and heating. Larger round bales or the large square bales are larger in size and weight. So obviously these will retain core moisture, thus internal heat longer than the small square bales. These larger bales should not be baled with a moisture content level in excess of 18 percent. If you are deciding to bale your large bales while the moisture content is in excess of 22 percent, you should not stack the bales for at least 30 days and consider this when feeding.

Large bales stored outside will suffer variable losses, depending upon the moisture of the hay at baling, the extent of exposure to precipitation, soil drainage characteristics where the bales are stored, the amount of space between the bales and the type of hay. Properly-baled hay should be stored in well-drained areas, with a minimum of three feet between bale rows, away from trees or shade, and all facing the same direction as prevailing winds (ends facing north and south). Check newly stacked hay for possible heating, especially for hay that has been rained on. It is not unusual for hay to heat to 100 degrees F within the first couple of weeks after it is baled.

For more information, please contact Chelsea Dorward at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service – Bosque County Office at 254-435-2331

This entry was posted in Bosque CEA-AG and tagged hay. Bookmark the permalink.

SDSU Extension

Originally written by Tracey Erickson, former SDSU Extension Dairy Field Specialist.

Successful hay storage is essential to preserving high quality forage, while ensuring desired performance from livestock and deterring economic losses from unwanted hay storage fires. The predominant reason that fires occur in hay is because of excessive moisture in the plant residue that results in heating when it is baled or stacked for long term storage.

Plant cell respiration burns plant sugars to produce energy. This is a normal process as the hay plant tissue dries down and is often referred to as “sweating” or “heating” and occurs until the plant material is less than 15% moisture. When the plant material has more than 20% moisture it can cause the mesophilic bacteria present to grow rapidly, which is encouraged by the excessive moisture present. This produces heat in the bale. The higher the moisture content the longer it takes for the bale to dry down. Correspondingly, the higher the temperature in the bale’s core will be as it works through the cycle of heating and drying. It is important to note that spontaneous combustion of hay bales can occur at interior bale temperatures of 170° F.

Minimizing Heat Damage & Fire Risk

At Harvest

How do we minimize the risk of heating or damage from fire? It is recommended to put up dry hay at a moisture content of 20% or less as this is when mesophilic bacteria growth is minimized, reducing the risk of overheating.

  • Baling when the weather is appropriate for putting up hay is often challenging. However, to achieve the desired moisture content, one should keep the following in mind. If humidity is high or there is heavy dew, the hay will “pick up” moisture content. Often baling later in the day helps minimize extra moisture from accumulating. However, as night approaches it can also increase the moisture present, so constant checking of the moisture content throughout baling is recommended.
  • Use a moisture tester which will give an automatic reading of the moisture content in the field or conduct a moisture test to determine the moisture content before baling.
  • Use equipment that will enhance quicker dry down of the forage. This includes hay rakes and conditioning equipment, tedders and windrow inverters.
  • Preservatives such as propionic acid that are applied at the time of baling can reduce or inhibit the growth of bacteria reducing the potential for excessive heating.

During Storage

Once the hay has been baled it is best to minimize losses or the potential of enhanced heating especially if the hay has been put up at marginal moisture levels (close to 20% moisture).

  • Storing inside is best to minimize losses from weather. In doing so, make sure it is weather tight and has adequate drainage to inhibit water from entering the building.
  • If storing outside is your option, cover the hay with a waterproof type material. To help moisture absorption from the ground, hay should be stored on a bed of gravel or by lifting them above the ground via tires, poles or pallets. If you are unable to cover them, provide enough room between bales to allow for adequate air flow for drying to continue.

Checking Stored Hay Temperature

If stored hay has been put up at a moisture content higher than recommended it will cause heating to occur. Stored hay should be monitored twice daily for a period of six weeks as it continues to dry down.

Checking of stacked bales should be done in teams of two people, along with a life harness being worn by the person on top of the stack. A life harness is recommended as a burned-out cavity can develop in the hay stack, which a person may fall into as they monitor bale stack temperatures. It is also recommended that planks or plywood be placed to help with weight distribution as a prevention measure for falling into a burned out cavity.

To monitor the temperature of baled hay one can use a commercial thermometer or a home fabricated probe can be used to meet your monitoring needs. A piece of 3/8 inch – 8 to 10 ft. iron pipe with a pointed tip can also be used. If you are using a commercial thermometer probe this should be left in the bale for 10-15 minutes to get an adequate reading. If you are using a home-made probe it should be left in the bales for 20 minutes before removing. The guidelines for using a homemade probe is that after removal, if the probe is too hot to hold in your hand, then you have hay that is too hot and should be removed.

The following temperature chart provides a guidelines for actions in correlation to the temperature of the stored hay.

Table 1. Critical Temperatures and Action Steps

“Hot” Stored Hay Hazards

It is important to be aware of the hazards that can exist when hay becomes “hot” or “heated”.

  • Flare-ups can occur at any time once the hay has reached a temperature that is above the danger zone of 150° F. It should be disassembled and allowed to cool. If the hay bale internal temperature has reached 175° F spontaneous combustion can occur once it is exposed to oxygen, thus it is recommended that fire department personnel be present to help with disassembling the hay pile for cooling and that a charged water source / hose be available to help put out fires if they occur.
  • Burned-out cavities can be extremely dangerous and may be present in hay if it reaches a temperature that is conducive to fire. A person may become trapped in a cavity as they are walking over the pile thus, it is recommended to wear a life line with a second person present and to also use boards for weight distribution on the top of a pile.
  • Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide can be present if there is smoldering or burning hay. Hay that has been chemically treated may also emit toxic gas vapors as it burns. This should be communicated to all fire-rescue workers so that appropriate breathing apparatus gear can be worn.

Appearance & Quality

Hay that has heated during storage will often appear brown or caramelized in color (Figure 1). Livestock will often like the caramelized flavor however, nutrients have been lost due to the excessive heating during storage. It is recommended to obtain a feed nutrient analysis prior to diet formulation to determine the quality of the forage.

We are often at the mercy of the weather when putting up hay under ideal moisture conditions. Therefore constant monitoring of hay moisture during baling and the temperature at storage time is essential to having high quality forages available for feeding livestock and for minimization of storage losses.

If you’ve been tuning into this series about the importance of hay in your horse’s diet, you probably don’t need to be told that hay is for horses. (If you have any doubts, feel free to read up on the different types of hay, how to choose the best hay for your horse and why it’s so important.) But what good will that knowledge do you if the hay you buy or grow is allowed to get wet, moldy or dusty? (Answer: none!) And it certainly won’t do your horse any good either.

So in this next post, we’re tackling another funny saying: “Make hay while the sun shines.” Because just as “hay is for horses” is absolutely true, so is making hay during dry weather — and maybe not just for the reasons you might think.

Make Hay While the Sun Shines

You probably already know that baling in wet conditions or getting rain on a freshly mown field can cause hay bales to mold, making them unpalatable or unsafe for consumption. But there are other dangers involved with baling wet, too: namely, hay fires caused by spontaneous combustion.

We use the expression to “make hay while the sun shines” because the sun is a key component in “curing” or “sweating” hay for safe longer-term storage. Hay should be cut only after the sun has been shining on it for a few successive days, as sunshine helps to dry out the stems of hay and lowers overall moisture content in the crop. Additional sun is necessary after a field has been cut and before it’s baled to continue the drying process. Ideal weather conditions are days with less than 50 percent relative humidity and some wind to help speed the process.

Experienced growers can often assess the hay for moisture content by look and feel; electronic moisture meters are an even better bet. Ideally, a field’s maximum moisture content at the time of baling should be approximately 18-20 percent for small two-tie bales, 16-18 percent for three-tie bales and 14-15 percent for large bales.

These numbers can be used as a general estimate for moisture content, but remember that the larger the bale and the greater its density, the larger the risk of a hay fire by spontaneous combustion. Dry, cured hay discourages the multiplication of the microorganisms responsible for creating the heat and fermentation cycle that can lead to combustion — which is an extremely compelling reason to make hay while the sun shines.

Store Hay Correctly for Better Nutrition and Palatability

Making sure that your hay was baled dry and cured properly is the first step in creating a safe hayloft. Proper storage can also help ensure that hay retains the most possible nutrition content, and that dry hay stays dry for ongoing fire protection.

Recall for a moment the myth that horses should not be fed round bales. In reality, round bales can be a perfectly fine way to achieve a “forage-first” feeding plan — if they’re stored inside or are covered appropriately. The same is true with more traditional 50-pound square bales.

  • Round bales stored outside should be protected from ground moisture and runoff by being placed on a bed of gravel, old tires, poles or pallets and covered with a waterproof layer. Be aware that stacking round bales generally traps moisture and limits drying, increasing storage losses and the likelihood of fire.
  • Square bales should be stored inside in a place that is not susceptible to roof leaks or storm runoff (that’s why it’s usually stored off the ground in a lofted area). Never stack bales all the way up to the ceiling, as they could make contact with a light, and will block circulation.
  • ALL hay should be kept dry and checked frequently for excess heat. Some heating (or “sweating”) will inevitably occur during the first few weeks as bales experience the natural heat cycle associated with microorganisms and fermentation. If no excess water is present to create a favorable breeding ground, the microorganisms will gradually be killed off and the hay’s temperature will stabilize at an ambient temperature.

One precaution many horse owners take is to store hay in a building other than the main barn where horses are kept. No one wants to envision a worst-case scenario, but should hay catch fire in an exterior building, it will buy you some time to move your horses to safety.

Check the Moisture and Temperature of Hay Bales

The electronic moisture meter used by balers in the field can also be a useful tool in your hayloft. Be sure to test a wide range of bales to seek out “slugs” — or those bales with abnormally high moisture readings resulting from roof leaks or a wet spot in the hay field.

While most hay baled under favorable conditions will reach a normalized temperature after curing for a few weeks, it’s imperative to keep monitoring temperatures. This chart (Table 2) from the National Agriculture Safety Database can help be sure your hay bales are within an acceptable temperature range.

To test temperature without a thermometer, push or drive a 3/8-inch to 1-inch diameter metal rod into the hay and leave it for 10-15 minutes. If you can hold the rod in your bare hand comfortably when you remove it, the temperature is approximately below 130 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s uncomfortable to hold, the temperature is probably between 130-160 degrees; if it’s too hot to hold, a fire is imminent and must be addressed immediately. Call the fire department and never move overheated or smoldering hay, as this will expose it to the oxygen it needs to continue burning. Hay that has been damaged by heat, smoke or water must be removed to a safe place and disposed of.

Finally, Use Good Common Sense

Hay quality deteriorates over time, so fill your loft to make it easiest to feed older bales first before moving onto this year’s crop. Protect it from moisture, and also from rodents, whose droppings can contaminate hay. Storing hay on pallets or boards can help increase ventilation, but avoiding packing your loft to the rafters, as this will merely inhibit peak ventilation, affecting your entire barn.

Feeding hay may seem like a no-brainer (and it is!), but being strategic about how, where and when you store it will ensure that it retains its very important status in your horse’s diet.

Harvesting high-quality forage can be challenging during periods of rainy weather. To harvest quality dry hay, you need several consecutive days of favorable weather. When it’s wetter during early summer, it’s challenging to harvest and preserve quality forage from the first cutting.

Under these conditions, wrapping wet hay for bale silage is another option to preserve forage quality.

Rain amount and duration

Rain on cut hay can significantly reduce quality and yield. Depending on amount and duration, rain after cutting can reduce yield and forage quality by up to 40 percent. The decline is likely greatest if the rain falls on dry hay and considerably less if it falls on freshly cut hay.

Waiting for better weather also reduces quality, but increases yield. Alfalfa yield increases about 100 pounds per acre per day in average growing conditions, except for the latest cuttings.

Forage quality: First vs. later cuttings

The quality of first cutting decreases at the fastest rate, while later cuttings change in fiber and digestibility at a slower rate. For example:

First cutting: Decreases about five points in relative feed value (RFV) per day.

Second cutting: Decreases two to three points per day.

Third or fourth cutting: Decreases one to two points per day.

Time of year

Forage quality changes little during late fall growth in mid- to late-September and early October. Relative forage quality (RFQ) will change at about the same rate as RFV on first cutting, and then decline about four points per day on the second, third and fourth cuttings during the growing season.

Large bale silage

To deal with potential losses in forage yield or quality, livestock producers have adopted large bale silage as a method of harvesting their hay crop. Silage bales, also known as baleage, that’ll store longer with less dry matter loss is one key to efficient harvest.

What to know about baleage

Baleage is an alternative to storing dry hay and may be exceedingly helpful during rainy periods of the haying season.

Silage bales are a flexible addition to most feeding programs, and it’s easy to transport them short distances. Feeding baleage is similar to feeding dry hay, but with less storage waste.

However, baleage may not be feasible if you need long-distance transportation to market the hay. Baleage can be as much as half water, so transportation costs often become excessive.

With the high demand (and even higher prices) of hay in the past few years, producers should do everything possible to protect their investment. Something to focus on this time of the year is the storage method of hay bales, particularly large round bales that are more susceptible to dry matter (DM) loss than small square bales.

Doo-Hong Min, Kansas State Research and Extension crops and soils specialist, points out that much of the dry matter loss in outdoor storage situations can be pinned on microbial respiration.

The best way to store hay bales is indoors and out of the wet weather conditions of winter, but that isn’t always a viable option.

Most people will store their bales outside, which can account for 5% to 40% DM loss depending on climate and the degree of protection from weather, according to Karla Hernandez, South Dakota State University Extension forage field specialist.

Take a look at ways to minimize loss when storing large round bales outside:

  • Maintain good bale density. One of the most important preventive measures to take is tightening the outer layer of the bale. Moisture tends to penetrate loosely-packed hay allowing microbes to use oxygen and the hay’s nutrients to break down the bale, causing significant losses. Test the density by pressing your palm against the bale. If your hand can depress the surface more than .5 inch, the bale could experience significant DM loss when left unprotected outside.
  • Cover it up. Allowing round bales to weather can reduce digestibility of the hay. Plastic wrap, tarps, or canvases can all be used to prevent extreme weathering.
  • Check out your storage site. Selecting a proper storage site with good airflow and drainage is a low-cost way to reduce DM loss. The storage site should not be shaded (away from trees) and should have good air circulation to enhance drying conditions after precipitation.
  • Elevate the bales up off the ground. Storing bales on the ground can account for up to half of DM loss (5% to 20%). Use racks, fence posts, old pallets, railroad ties, used tires, or a 4- to 6-inch layer of rock to elevate hay.
  • Position rows of bales to promote good drying. Noticing a trend? Keeping hay dry is a key ingredient to saving your investment! It is recommended to stack round bales end-to-end, keeping 3 or 4 feet between each row (for air circulation, of course). Orient the rows in a north-south direction. Bales should not be stacked if they are not covered.

Be sure to take climatic and precipitation conditions into account when selecting the best storage option for your operation. An area that does not receive much precipitation will not gain much from putting up a facility to store bales indoors. In a region where rain and snow are prevalent, an indoor storage facility may very well pay for itself.