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Hay bales with over 22% to 23% moisture content start to have biological activity causing problems within the bales and it will negatively affect the quantity of dry matter as well as the quality of the bale. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

There is not a sadder sight than a moldy, ruined round bale, especially after all the work it takes to grow forage, bale it and stack the end product. Kevin Shinners, professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said hay growers can cut their hay storage losses with a few simple steps.

“When it comes to storage losses, it’s really all about the precipitation on the bales stored outdoors,” Shinners said. “We know that the bales will get rained on, but what we want to try to do is to make sure that rain will get shed off the bales, the water will drain away from them and the bales will dry quickly.”

When hay bales get over 22 to 23% moisture content, biological activity in the bale starts to cause problems, spoilage takes place and it will negatively affect the quantity of dry matter as well as the quality of the hay, he said.

“When the bale hits the ground, it has a certain value, both nutritionally and monetarily,” Shinners said. “After storage outdoors, the bales are going to weather, spoil and we’re going to have a loss of dry matter and quality.”

According to Shinners, the first step in conserving round bale quality during storage starts with baling smart.

“If we make dense, square-shouldered bales, those bales are not going to squat as much, won’t touch the ground with as much surface area and there won’t be as much rejected hay where it squats,” Shinners explained.

Additionally, dense bales mean fewer bales to handle and transport. Another crucial step that aids in protecting hay from the elements is the use of net wrap during baling, which Shinners said saves the leaves on the harvested forage and they are an important to forming a strong thatch that helps bales shed water. Losses during wrapping are about three times more when using twine as compared to net wrap.

“Net wrap is more productive, and takes less time for the bale to wrap than twine,” Shinners said. “Since twine has to be wrapped around the bales more times, it knocks the leaves off the stems—especially with alfalfa. When we do form a really good thatch, water is going to drain off the round surface to what we call the drip line, which is at the 3 and 9 o’clock position on the bale. But because of surface tension, you will also end up with water that will drain to the bottom of the bale into the ground. What we want to try to do is create conditions where that water can drain away from the bale.”

Some examples of tools to get bales off the ground and out of standing water include: placing them on wooden pallets, telephone poles and rock pads. Shinners suggests using a river rock pad with a trench under it so water can be evacuated.

In terms of the storage location, Shinners recommends putting bales on a well-drained surface with a slope, so that that the water will drain away from them. Never place bales in the shade, along a tree line or next to a barn because they will never dry from the sun. Although stacking bales on top of each other saves space, it also leads to higher storage losses than if they are in single rows. There should be at least 3 feet of space between each row so water will not run off the bales and gutter between the rows. Additionally, this method will keep air flow and sun on both sides of the bales. Managing vegetation between the rows will also promote air flow. Shinners said to place rows on a line that is north, south facing so that they dry out on the east, west side with help from the sun.

When it comes to protecting hay from Mother Nature, a proper thatch, sunshine and drainage are the right tools to have in a producer’s arsenal.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or lnewlin@hpj.com.

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