Hay Storage and Feeding Losses

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension
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Hay losses can cost you a great deal of money throughout the year. Whether these losses are from heat damage, fire, or feeding, there are ways that you can manage your hay supply to help reduce their effects.
Internal Heating and Fire Risk
Hay that goes through a heating process can sometimes lead to fires that are started internally in the bales. This heating process happens as a result of microorganism activity in hay that has been stored at a high moisture level. Even if the heating doesn’t result in a fire, it will greatly reduce the forage quality of the bale.

The best way to avoid internal heating is to avoid baling hay at high moisture levels. Hay in round bales should be no more than 18% moisture and hay in small, square bales should be no more than 20 percent moisture. Bales that contain higher levels of moisture are at a much greater risk of combustion. If you suspect that the hay has been baled too wet, the bales should not be stored inside the barn for two to three weeks until the risk of combustion due to heating has passed.

It’s best to monitor the temperature of hay for the first week or two after baling to ensure that there is no danger of fire. A compost thermometer available at many home and garden stores is very useful for this. Just insert the thermometer down into the bale and wait for the temperature reading to hold constant. As long as the temperature remains below 120º, the hay is at a safe temperature. If the hay is in the 120º to 140º range, then there is a slight risk and the hay should be monitored further until the temperature drops. If the hay reaches 160º or higher, the hay is at a very high risk of catching fire.

Other Storage Concerns
The most important part of hay storage is to protect hay bales from moisture. The amount of
moisture from the soil absorbed into hay bales can be decreased by storing bales off of the ground on wooden pallets, telephone poles, or cross ties. Gravel or rock pads can be put down in areas where bales will be stored outside on the ground. The goal is to avoid having the bales in direct contact with the soil but allowing some air flow under the hay is also desirable.

Storage barns or shelters are most ideal for protecting bales from the weather but hay that must be stored outside can be protected from moisture by covering it with tarps or plastic covers. Direct contact with the soil should still be avoided so rock pads or wood pallets are still useful in these situations.

Feeding Losses
Feeding losses of up to 60 percent have been observed in feeding trials where no attempts were made to reduce the losses. Simple changes in management can save a great deal of money by reducing the amount of hay lost during feeding. These losses occur when the hay is trampled, urinated or defecated upon, weathered, or refused by the animals. It’s important to consider the location where hay is normally fed. Low lying areas that may remain wet should be avoided as well as bare areas that could become muddy. It is best if feeding areas are moved to different areas around the pasture. This is because feeding areas tend to become muddy and have compacted soil in the areas where animals linger around the hay. If the feeding area remains in the same area, gravel can be used to fill the area and provide a solid foundation for feeding.

Always use a round bale feeder to keep animals from lying on or trampling the hay and to keep the
bales from sitting directly on the ground. Shelters can also be useful to protect bales from rainfall but the more important management consideration would be to protect the bale from soil contact.