Ahh… that sweet smell of fresh-cut hay. You've worked hard to get those bales put up, investing anywhere from $10-$15/round bale after calculating time, labor and equipment costs. Choosing a proper storage method can preserve bales, maximizing nutritional value and savings.

Dave Sanson, Louisiana State University cattle nutritionist, says a cow-calf producer's most costly item is nutrition — the lion's share being winter-feed costs.

“So if you can cut your hay losses by 20% just by storing it properly, you can dramatically affect the bottom line,” he says.

Recognizing there's no one “right way” for everyone, producers should consider three factors in determining their optimum storage method.

  • Start with the hay's quality, or value.

    There's a big dollar difference in a 25% loss on $120/ton hay vs. $40/ton forages. “The better the quality, the more you'll save putting it under storage,” Sanson says.

  • Evaluate the likelihood of spoilage in your climate.

    “A little bit of rain and cold damp days are just as bad as a downpour followed by summer sunshine,” says Dennis Buckmaster, Purdue ag engineer.

    Spoilage, or weathering, is the result of moisture getting into bales, and temperature accelerating bacterial breakdown of the cellulose. Warmer temps combined with moisture increase bale deterioration. Wind can also influence drying time.

    Moisture gets into bales in three ways: rainfall, snowmelt and humidity. The tops of bales absorb moisture from rain and snowmelt, the bottom wicks moisture from the ground.

  • Consider the length of time bales will be exposed to weathering.

    First-cutting forages are more susceptible than hay harvested in the fall, depending on when it's fed.

Once you've considered your elements, choose a storage method that best fits your needs.

Outside, uncovered

Storing round bales outside in long rows with ends butted against each other is still a common storage method, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist.

Such bales lose 25-30% of their total digestible nutrients. Sanson says this level of loss in a 1,150-lb. bale could meet the energy requirements of a 1,000-lb. cow for 16 days.

Placing a row of round bales laid on end, often repeated with a second row and then topped by a row of bales butted end-to-end is another method of outdoor, uncovered storage. Anderson says it's critical that bales on the top form a tight cigar and be the same or larger diameter as the bales they rest on so moisture can't get down to bales turned on end.

“It's better than just a row of bales, but it's not good,” Buckmaster says. As far as he's concerned, uncovered outdoor storage is just another way to create manure without the cow. “You go to all that effort to roll it up, just to let it rot?” he asks.

Outside, covered

“If you can't afford a barn, outside and covered is a very economical way to store hay,” says Sanson, who uses tarps to cover a 3-2-1 pyramid of round bales. Buckmaster estimates such a system costs $10/ton, accounting for labor, material, machinery and site preparation, with dry matter loss.

But that's only if everything goes right. To get it right, Sanson suggests constructing a proper “pad,” finding the right type of tarp and then properly securing it.

“When that water comes off the tarp, you want it to hit the ground and flow away from the hay,” Sanson says. Pad construction consists of raising the ground 2-6 in. the width of the tarp by using topsoil or other materials. Locating the pad near wind protection can reduce wind damage to tarps.

Buckmaster recommends that, for three-high pyramid stacks, tarps be 5 ft. wide for every 1 ft. of bale diameter. Thus, a 25-ft.-wide tarp will cover 5-ft.-diameter bales stacked three high in a triangular formation. Stack ends should be left open to facilitate air movement.

Sanson recommends using a breathable tarp that allows air to move freely but keeps the rain out.

Once the pad is prepared and the stack built and covered, securing the tarp is another challenge. Some tarp makers provide rope that acts like a harness over bales. Sanson has found success using house-trailer anchors secured in a dirt pad — cautioning that you'll have a foot of metal sticking up around where you stack hay. He's also tried driving fence posts in at an angle, only to have wind pull them up.

Tarps should be checked and tightened each week, Sanson says, noting the entire stack will settle in two weeks.

“If you take the right attitude, they're pretty low maintenance,” Sanson says. He was able to use tarps for 7-8 years before a hurricane ruined them.

Big square bales lend themselves well to outdoor stacking, but still need top protection. The same basic principles apply: protect the top, prevent rain from soaking up underneath, and allow stacks to breathe.

Barn storage

“Bite the bullet upfront; it will pay off short term,” Buckmaster says in regard to producers looking to store hay for the long haul. About a 4% loss in bales can be expected from barn storage, and costs run $18-$22/ton after penciling in machinery, labor and structure costs.

He sees a dual benefit. When not used for hay storage, the building can be used to house equipment, seed, etc.

Like all storage systems, it's important to consider site preparation. Drainage and accessibility are key, but the structure should be built based on how you plan to stack.

Round bale storage within a building can push outward on walls (imagine the tendency of sections of PVC pipe to roll). If you plan to store round bales in such a structure, reinforced walls are needed to handle the load, Buckmaster says.

To eliminate side-load against walls, consider storing bales on their flat ends.

“You can get more bales in the same space, or require a smaller barn to store the same amount of hay,” Buckmaster says. Bales will retain their shape better, there will be less stress on the barn structure, and it's a better utilization of space.

That's a wrap

Four factors are important in choosing a bale wrap — be it sisal, plastic twine, net-wrap or tube-wrap — says Kevin Shinners, University of Wisconsin ag engineer.

  • Productivity in the field.

    Twine is a lot slower in the field to wrap bales with than net-wrap, Shinners says. Baling productivity with net-wrap can be increased 30-35%, depending on bale size and number of wraps. Most balers can add net-wrap features for $3,000-$4,000, and it costs about $1/bale more than twine, depending on how much is used. Generally, 1½-2½ wraps with net-wrap is sufficient.

  • Losses that occur during storage.

    In Shinners' research, average dry matter (DM) loss for sisal twine was 19.5%, 11.3% for plastic twine, and 7.3% for net-wrap.

    “Sisal twine generally won't survive the storage period without rotting away on the bottom of the bale,” Shinners says about uncovered bales stored outside in humid climates. Such bales will begin to sag, enabling more water to penetrate. Plastic twine holds bales together and shedding water better.

    Net-wrap is even more effective, but these bales must be placed on a well-drained surface so water doesn't pool at the bottom of bales.

    Tube-wrapping is another option. Baled at 30-35% moisture vs. the traditional 18-20%, tube-wrapping saves a day in the field and works well for producers in humid, rainy climates. DM losses were well below 7% in Shinners' research, and often below 3% (comparable to barn storage).

    The roles are reversed if bales are stored inside or covered with a tarp.

    “Sisal twine really has an advantage because you can drop the whole bale into the feeder and the twine will disappear,” Shinners says. “A net-wrapped bale has no advantage stored indoors,” except in productivity in the field.

  • How you plan to feed bales and the time you have to feed.

    “Even if you're inclined to get off the tractor at feeding and cut the wrap, it can be problematic to remove,” Shinners says, especially net-wrap with snow and ice accumulation. Once removed, plastic twine and net-wrap often end up wrapped around equipment such as mower shafts and manure spreader beaters.

    That's one of sisal twine's big advantages ? producers don't have to worry about removing twine strings before feeding bales.

  • If you're going to sell hay.

    Net-wrapped bales have better visual appeal than twine-wrapped hay. And net-wrap that covers over the bale's edge is better than regular.

Preparing for placement

“People need to think about how and where they'll store their hay before they bale it,” says University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson.

  • Begin by considering access to bales. Don't store them where snow or mud will limit access.

  • Drainage is also important. Elevate bales by using crushed rock, concrete, wood pallets or railroad ties, or simply a location where water drains away. A lot of hay spoilage results from moisture wicked from the soil.

  • Orient bale rows in a north-south direction to expose both sides to sunlight. Occasionally, a southwest-to-northeast orientation can utilize prevailing winds to aid in drying.

  • Separate bale rows by 3-4 ft. to allow for air movement and moisture evaporation.

  • Keep track of different types of hay. Know where bad and potentially dangerous hays are and have access to these different groups.

When to make the move

When is it best to move round bales off a field? It depends on the field. If multiple cuttings are planned, at least move them to the side of the field the day they're baled, says University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson.

That's because wheel traffic can damage new growth. One day after baling, alfalfa directly in a wheel track can lose 5-7% of its yield potential. Waiting a week can result in a 25% loss.

Removal is less critical for the year's last cutting, but whatever a bale sits on for a month likely will be killed. “Usually plants can handle that kind of covering for maybe up to a week,” Anderson says.

And always allow wet bales to dry before storage.