Storing Hay For Winter: Tips for Minimizing Moisture and Spoilage

Published on Wed, 09/27/2023 - 3:59pm

Storing Hay For Winter: Tips for Minimizing Moisture and Spoilage.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Ranchers need to plan ahead regarding winter forage supplies, and this includes finding ways to store hay to help preserve quality and reduce moisture damage.  Many folks put up hay in big round bales, but finding the best way to store them for winter feeding is often challenging.

Warren Rusche (South Dakota State University Extension Beef Feedlot Management Associate) says the ideal way to store hay is under cover in a shed, but this works best for square bales and is not practical for most cattle producers, especially for round bales that take up more space.  A shed pays for itself over time in less spoilage/hay waste and more quality retained, but the initial investment is often more than a cattle producer can afford.

“Unless hay is expensive or high quality and valuable to protect from weather damage, it may be hard to justify the expense of a hay shed,” he says.  In many areas of the West, drought conditions have made hay scarce and expensive, so even though a person might not be able to invest in a shed, it pays to find a way to cover it.

“If we’re not going to put hay under roof, we need to find a well-drained site, so we won’t have spoilage on the bottom of the bales.  If you can put gravel or some kind of base under the hay that will drain, it keeps the bottoms from soaking up water.”

In snow country, you need to locate the hay storage area away from low areas that will be wet with snow melt, and away from trees.  “If it’s away from trees this allows more air movement to keep things dry, and avoids catching more snow.  If it catches very much snow, not only do we have to dig the hay out to feed it, but when all that snow melts it puts all that moisture right next to our hay pile or rows,” Rusche says.

If hay is close to a stream and trees, there is more moisture in the air—more humidity than in an open area.  The ground might also be a little more saturated.  If trees are very tall they also create shade for part of the day and the snow doesn’t melt off as quickly in the spring.

“My preference, if I have room, is to store round bales in long single-bale rows with the flat sides touching each other and round side up—and run those rows run north to south so the hay gets sun exposure on both sides.  It’s also good to have fairly wide gaps between the rows if you have several rows, for more air movement,” he says.  Then if you have a major snowstorm and a lot of snow, it can slide off the bales between the rows with enough room that it won’t pile up so deeply between them and stay against the sides of the bales so long.

“When there’s a lot of snow, and bales are in a single row, we can pull the bales off that row and only open up a smaller area—as opposed to trying to get at bale stacks.  Sometimes the limited space for our hay yard does not allow us to do that, however, and we have to stack them,” says Rusche.

“In that situation we might want to figure out how long we’ll store it, and which hay we will be using up first.  If we put up hay mid to late summer but start feeding some in early winter, we can maybe cut corners.  If we have hay that will be fed to weaned calves in the fall—and fed up by the first of the year—maybe we can cut corners on storage, because shrink on that hay (only stored a few months) will be modest,” he says.

“When talking about shrink, some people look at a bale and think there is only a little on the outside.  But we need to consider how much that outside 6 inches actually is—depending on how big a bale it is.  It might be a sizable portion.”  It may not look like much, but in terms of pounds it can be a lot.

“Prioritize the storage plan.  The longer we need to keep hay, the more protected it should be so it won’t weather so much.  If people are building covered storage, they could put the high-quality feed under roof.  If its high-value alfalfa that will be fed for calving and needs to hold quality until spring, it should be the hay that goes under a roof,” he explains.  Rained-on grass hay that’s not worth as much can be stored outside.

Some people tarp hay rather than invest in a hay shed.  Hay can be tarped at any location, and it may be easier to invest in a few tarps or rolls of black plastic that can be reused for several years.  Black plastic lasts longer than most tarps and is cheaper than a good tarp, and can be cut to fit the stacks you want to cover.  Black plastic also has an advantage of being slicker—and warmer from absorbing sunshine—and snow sheds off it better in winter.

When tarping hay, it’s easy to do with long single rows or rows of single bales placed on top of single bales—compared with tarping a pyramid stack.  When taking tarps or black plastic off in winter for feeding, the covering comes off single rows easily, whereas the pyramid stack or any rows placed tightly together will have dips and valleys where water or snow melt collects and creates heavy chunks of ice.  These make it difficult to take the covering off in the winter when feeding.

“The piles and pyramid stacks have more problems in general, just because there are more places for water to collect and sink into the hay.  If we place bales flat side to flat side in long rows of single bales, we have the advantage of letting the water shed off,” says Rusche.

When space is limited, people usually stack bales—either putting them in rows with a sideways bale on top of each upright bale, or making a pyramid stack.  “Kansas State University looked at putting a bale on end and other bale on top of it.  The shrink loss on these was similar to what they saw in single rows.  A study in South Dakota looked at storage losses of bales in pyramid stacks (a base of three with a layer of two on those and a third bale on top) and found 10% loss in one year.  A single bale with air around it had storage loss of 4% and when placed end to end in long rows the loss was under 1% so in this particular study that was the best method,” says Rusche.

“That publication also stated that if you tarp the pyramid stack, you can get by with a smaller tarp.”  But it’s hard to a tarp over a pyramid stack; there will be some sags in it where water collects to make ice chunks.  The most problem-free way to store round bales, if a person has room to do it, is in one long single row.

“That’s the way I store my hay.  I had a good really good buy on some hay three years ago and bought a whole truck load.  Then I changed my program--to graze more and use less hay.  I finally got down to the last two bales of three-year-old hay.  They’d kept pretty well.  They were net-wrapped however, and the net-wrap froze down or grew down so that when I moved them the whole wrap came off and it tried to fall apart, but the hay was still pretty good,” he says.

Square bales are easier to stack, cover and transport, but most people like to make round bales because they are cheaper and quicker during harvest.  “In our region, unless someone is marketing high-value hay (that will be shipped out) nearly everyone (about 90% of farmers) makes big round bales,” says Rusche.

He says the key to storing big round bales is to recognize that moisture is the enemy.  “We want to maximize the amount of air movement and minimize the amount of time that water or snow can sit on a bale.  If feasible, overhead protection (hay shed or tarping) for the higher-value, higher-quality hay makes sense.  Some people use relatively inexpensive hoop barns.  The curved hoop gives up a little storage capacity compared to a square shed, but is cheaper to install and keeps moisture off.”

In a hoop barn, a person can stack the hay fairly high.  “You might use crushed rock or concrete for a good base, and the hay won’t draw moisture from the ground—and there won’t be any spoilage top or bottom.”

Emily Glunk Meccage, PhD, former Forage Extension Specialist, Department of Animal and Range Sciences, Montana State University was involved with a research project a couple years ago, looking at round bale storage outdoors.  “We found that how you stack the hay does affect the quality, and the moisture retention of those bales over winter.  You want to minimize the amount of moisture and mold in those bales because that can affect cattle health and performance,” says Meccage.  

Danielle Peterson, Livestock Production Specialist, Purina Animal Nutrition, was a graduate student at MSU during that study and the research was part of her thesis.  She says results were similar to other studies that assessed hay stored in various ways.  Indoor storage is best (under roof), but for outdoor storage, single bale high (in a long row) seems to be the most consistent for retaining quality within bales.   

Many people don’t have enough hay yard room to put all the bales in long single rows, however and stack some of them on top of each other to save space, or use a pyramid stack.  Even though this might seem more efficient, it can lead to more spoilage.

“We did see some differences between bales that were stored at the top of the pyramid and the bottom.  But the mushroom stack where the bottom bale is upright and another placed on its side on top of it had the most variability,” says Meccage.  

“We found that the top bales had hardly any change in quality, but the bottom bales soaked up moisture that ran off the top bales, as well as moisture from the ground surface,” says Peterson.  “Visual quality of the bottom bales from the ground up was much lower than visual quality from the top down.”

The bottom bales were significantly lower in TDN and energy content, and higher in moisture content than top bales.  “This reduction in forage quality can have an impact on animal performance,” says Peterson.

If you are feeding one group of cattle the top bales and another group the bottom bales they might be getting completely different nutrient levels, even if the hay was harvested at the same time from the same field.

“We did a two-year study and at one location we saw a lot more mold growth in between the bales in the pyramid stack than we did the first year,” says Meccage.  Each year is a little different in how much moisture those bales receive, and when.

“When planning long-term it’s often wise to hold some hay in reserve in case we have a bad year.  If you plan to keep hay over for the next year, try to stack it in a manner that it will keep better and not be ruined by moisture,” says Meccage  A person could afford to build a hay shed with the money lost in damaged hay over time.

“Hay that’s been stored outside, uncovered, may decline in dry matter and quality,” says Peterson.  “This can result in lower animal performance (lower average daily gains, poor animal health, and possibly even abortion in cows in certain cases with moldy hay).”

Having a gravel base to stack on will greatly reduce moisture damage.  Putting hay on pallets, railroad ties or gravel will allow drainage and eliminate moisture wicking up into the hay from wet ground.  

Putting tarps or black plastic over the hay can also protect it from wet weather and can be economical, especially if you’ve stacked the bales on top of each other and the tarp can cover twice as much hay as with a single row.  These coverings can often be re-used for several years, which makes them more cost-effective in preserving hay quality.  The covering also keeps snow and moisture from freezing on the bales—which can make it challenging to remove the net wrap or twines when feeding.

Handy Tip For Covering a Haystack
Tarps or black plastic are great for covering and protecting hay.  On our ranch we always cover our haystacks with tarps or big strips of durable black plastic (which can be re-used several times), since we don’t have a hay shed for our cattle hay.

The biggest enemy of a hay covering is wind.  Unless the tarp or black plastic is tied down securely, wind can whip and beat on it and wear holes in it or tear it, and sometimes tear out the grommets in a tarp.  Black plastic has no grommets and you have to create an “ear” to secure your rope or twines to it, for tying it down.

Any tarp or covering must have a reinforced place for securing your tie.  A simple hole in it will always tear and pull out.  Some tarps have better reinforcements (stronger grommets) than others, but they can still occasionally tear out and you have to create another place to secure your rope or twine.

Black plastic is very strong and durable, but will always tear out if you create a hole in it for tying, and is so slippery that it’s hard to make a good “ear” to hold a rope or twine that won’t just pull off if the tension is too great—such as in a strong wind.

The best way we’ve found to create a new holding spot on a tarp (with a ripped-out grommet) or to make secure “ears” on black plastic is to use a small smooth rock (or something like a golf ball) folded into the material, with the twine tied tightly around the rock.  This creates a solid, secure lump in the tarp or plastic that will hold the rope or twine and it can’t pull off.

To create a secure ear, place the rock on the tarp or plastic where you want to tie your rope or twine, folding the tarp/plastic up over the rock so it is completely engulfed and covered.  Then tie one end of your rope/twine securely above the rock, in the small “neck” above it, using a square knot or any other knot that will hold and never slip.  This will keep your rope/twine secure and it can’t pull off over the lump created by the rock, and it won’t pull off or tear out.  

We simply tie the other end to the bales (below the tarp), tying it to the net wrap or bale twines, or sometimes to big tires on the ground next to the hay or straw stack.

To keep the wind from getting in under the tarp or black plastic (which is the main reason a covering fails and gets torn off a stack), we tie it down in many places—using all the grommets in a tarp (and sometimes creating more tie spots if the grommets are too far apart or not in the right place) or creating many “ears” on the black plastic.

As double insurance against a strong gust of wind getting underneath a tarp or black plastic, we also run a rope or long twine over the top of the stack, and do this in multiple places, to help hold it down.  It’s easy to throw a small rope or long baling twine over the stack if you tie a small rock to the end you are going to throw over—to help it arc over the stack and keep any wind from interfering with your toss—and then you can tie it down securely on each side of the stack.  With solid “ears” and a few tie ropes over the rows of bales, the tarps or plastic can withstand tremendous wind without tearing or blowing off.