Minimizing Storage and Feeding Losses of Round Bale Hay

There’s no one “right way” for everyone when it comes to hay storage.  Photo courtesy of Steve Niemeyer.
There’s no one “right way” for everyone when it comes to hay storage. Photo courtesy of Steve Niemeyer.

By Steve Niemeyer, UNL Extension Educator

Storing big round hay bales by lining them up along the fence row may be easy, but it is not economical. Baled forage probably constitutes the highest percentage of winter feed cost we have wrapped up in a cow. The production of hay uses a large amount of resources and the ration of beef cattle can be affected by the hay quality. Storing dry hay on the ground without cover is the worst possible storage technique. Results found from ranch research done in the Sandhills of Nebraska by the University of Nebraska Extension in 2005 – 2008 reported no significant nutrient changes in total dry matter pounds, pounds of crude protein or pounds of total digestible nutrients on native hay and alfalfa plots. However, visual damage losses after one year between covered and uncovered with twine or net wrap are reported in Table 1 ( Losses after two years of storage are reported in Table 2 (

There’s no one “right way” for everyone when it comes to hay storage. Producers should consider three factors in determining their optimum storage method.

1. Look at hay quality, or value. There’s a big dollar difference in a 25% loss on $120/ton of hay vs. $40/ton of hay. The better the quality, the more you’ll save putting it under storage.

2. Evaluate the likelihood of spoilage in your climate. Spoilage, or weathering, is the result of moisture getting into bales, and temperature accelerating bacterial breakdown of the cellulose. Warmer temperatures 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.

3. 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.

Research from past studies show outdoor storage losses range from 5-35% of which can be reduced by 66% with indoor storage and be reduced by 50% with good plastic covering outdoors.

Make a dense bale: It will shed more precipitation, sag less, and have less surface area to absorb moisture. By using net wrap you will reduce bale sag and maintain bale shape. In addition, net wrap makes a tight, smooth surface that will resist weathering, insects, and rodents. Store bales on a well drained location with a 4-6 inch coarse rock base that will minimize bottom spoilage. Store bales end-to-end in long lines in a northwest to southeast direction whenever possible. Space adjacent lines at least 10 feet apart. Stacking bales usually increased losses. Locate bale rows away from fences and fields and it is recommended to cover hay if keeping more than one year.