Outdoor Hay Storage Solutions

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Adobe Stock/Tomasz Zajda

If you feed hay to your livestock, you know how expensive it can be to keep your animals well-fed on quality forage. Whether you purchase the hay or bale it yourself, making the most of your investment requires proper storage to ensure both quality and longevity.

According to an article published by Ohio State University, if you turn out an average of 4 tons of alfalfa hay per acre, the cost to produce that hay is $133.02 per ton, or $532.08 per acre. Even on a relatively small 20-acre hayfield, your expenses could be $10,000 or more.

The same article goes on to say that hay stored indoors may suffer a 4-to-7-percent loss over the course of a year, while hay kept outside without cover can see a 25-to-35-percent loss. Even a loss of 25 percent due to inadequate storage equates to a $2,500 hit to your initial investment. If your only option is to store your hay outside, minimizing loss with proper storage techniques will help you keep more of your valuable hay for feed.

Types of Bales

Baled hay comes in a few different forms, which somewhat dictates how the bales should be stored. The three main types of bales are the traditional rectangular bale, the large rectangular bale, and the round bale.

  • Traditional rectangular bales were the first type to be produced by a mechanical baler, and are probably the most well-known. The bales are normally 2 feet wide by 2 feet high by 4 feet long, and are held together by twine or wire. They usually weigh between 40 and 80 pounds. Their size and ease of handling makes them ideal for feeding horses or small numbers of livestock.
  • Large rectangular bales are roughly 3 feet wide by 3 feet high by 8 feet long, and can weigh 800 pounds or more. The bales can be broken off in parts to feed, but require the use of equipment to produce and transport.
  • Round bales have become the most popular type of bale produced on large-scale farms and ranches. They range in size from 600 to 2,000 pounds, and are probably the most cost-effective bale to produce. Because of their size, round bales are more often stored outdoors.

Sun setting over a hay field with 4 bails of hay.

Indoor Storage

If you have the ability to store even some of your hay indoors, that’s always the best option. However, there are a few things to keep in mind with indoor storage. If your storage area has a roof, it won’t keep your hay any drier if that roof is leaky. Make sure the building you store hay in has a weatherproof roof and proper ventilation to allow the hay to dry well after baling, which reduces spoilage. Also, a good foundation for your bales to rest on — whether gravel, concrete, or wooden pallets — will ensure better quality hay.

If possible, store hay in a building that’s separate from your livestock and away from other structures. Stored hay has a high fire potential, primarily due to the bacterial process that occurs in wet hay. If hay is baled with a moisture content higher than 20 percent, bacteria will grow in the hay, creating heat that can bring the temperature to 135 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. As the air temperature inside the building rises in summer, the heat inside the bales will rise also, causing the bacteria to multiply and increasing the potential for the bale to catch fire. To mitigate the fire potential, you should visually monitor your hay and regularly check it with a heat probe.

a bunch of hay bails stacked on each other covered by a green tarp

Outdoor Site Selection and Preparation

If you don’t have access to indoor storage, you can reduce your outdoor losses by taking some precautions and preparing your site ahead of time. Look for an area clear of trees that has good airflow and drainage; gently elevated sites with a north and south orientation are best. Also, the type of soil beneath your stored bales is very important. Soil that allows for good drainage, such as sandy or loam-type soils, won’t pool water after rain or snowmelt. And, if possible, select a site with some slope.

Once you’ve selected a site for stacking your bales, take some time to prepare the ground. Storing bales directly on the ground has been proven to produce a loss of 5 to 20 percent. Use wooden fence posts, pallets, or crushed rock or gravel to create a barrier between the bales and the ground, which will reduce the amount of moisture the bales absorb.

Keep in mind when you’re baling or purchasing hay that the more densely packed a bale is, the less moisture it’ll absorb. If exposed to water, a tightly packed bale will suffer less damage to its inside layers than a loose bale.

a bunch of hay bails under a large roof with no walls

Stacking Rectangular Bales

Traditional rectangular bales are one of the best types to stack outdoors, because of their relatively small size. They’re easily arranged in a pyramid shape, which offers the best protection from the elements because the shape provides a gentle slope to shed rain and snow. After you’ve stacked the bales, cover them with a bale tarp. (See “Gritty’s Tips” below for tarp considerations.)

Covering stacked hay with a tarp has proven very effective, as long as the tarp is properly secured. You can use earth anchors, metal rods, or rebar to secure hay tarps. For an added layer of protection, lay a tarp on top of the ground base material before stacking hay to greatly reduce moisture wicking. The tarp placed on the ground should exceed the diameter of the stack by at least 3 feet in each direction, allowing the tarp to be pulled up and pinned under the top tarp. This will completely enclose the stack from the elements.

Man in an orange hay bailer lifting hay

Note that it’s especially important to monitor the heat of stacked bales if they’re completely enclosed by both a top and ground tarp. Tarps can dramatically raise the temperature of stored hay if it was baled with a high moisture content and covered in warmer temperatures.

Because of their size, large rectangular bales require equipment to move and stack, making it more difficult to arrange them in a pyramid style. Instead, place large rectangular bales in manageable stacks, and then cover them with a tarp.

Gritty’s Tips: Hay Tarps

Hay tarps are available in literally hundreds of options. Here are a few factors to consider when searching for the right one to fit your needs:

  • Cost: Price is dependent on size and quality, and can range from about $50 to $2,000 or more per tarp.
  • Durability: For longevity, look for tarps that are rot- and UV-resistant. Also, check for tarp thickness, and whether the seams are single- or double-sewn.
  • Protection: Some tarps are waterproof and some are just water-resistant; quality here can make a huge difference. Some tarps come with rain flaps, which work well for deflecting moisture from running down the sides of stacked hay.
  • Security: You want your tarps to stay in place. Check for the number of grommets or tie-down straps on a tarp and how far apart they’re spaced. Some tarps have wood sewn into the sides for added weight.
  • Size: Tarps come in a wide range of sizes, and you can even order custom-sized ones if needed.

Round Bale Storage

The shape of round bales allows moisture to roll off the bale, making them a good choice for outdoor storage. Round bales should be placed end to end, butted up tight to each other. If you have several rows, leave a minimum of 3 feet between each row to allow good airflow.

Round bales can be arranged in small stacks and covered with tarps to further protect them from the elements. Due to the volume of hay in one round bale, even small stacks of three or more bales can be covered economically. Another benefit of the round bale is that groups of bales can be located close to feeding areas, requiring less transportation.

A Bail of hay being loaded onto a cart with a red hay bailer

Moving Hay

Storing and feeding hay will inevitably require you to move the bales around your property. Small rectangular bales have the advantage of being relatively light, so large numbers of them can be moved in a hay trailer or in a tractor or skid-steer loader bucket. Even subcompact tractors can be very useful in moving small bales.

When it comes to moving large rectangular or round bales, the task becomes much more difficult due to their weight, and you’ll need an attachment mounted to either the front or rear of a tractor or skid-steer.

Bale spears are the most popular way to move large bales. “Spears” are heavy metal shafts that are attached to a rigid frame to distribute weight. Spears come in various lengths, and some can move up to 3,000 pounds when coupled with the appropriate sized tractor or skid-steer. Both single and double spears are available.

When used on the rear of a tractor, a bale spear is attached to the tractor’s three-point hitch. Bales are moved by backing into the bale with the spear, raising the three-point hitch, and carrying the bale to its desired location. When mounted on the front of a tractor or skid-steer, the bucket is removed and the spear is then attached to the front. Visibility and maneuverability are greatly improved with a front-mounted spear; bales can be raised as high as the lift and weight capability of the tractor or skid-steer safely allow, which permits better stacking and placement.

Red hay bailer transporting hay

Tractors and skid-steers can also be equipped with bale grapples, or “grabbers.” Grapples are attached to the loader arms of a tractor or skid-steer, and they resemble a traditional bucket with top “arms” that clamp down on the hay. They’re used to scoop and hold bales, but also work well on loose hay.

Whether you use a bale spear or loader bucket to move bales, it’s very important to take adequate safety precautions and be aware of the limitations of the tractor or skid-steer. Hauling heavy bales creates a very unstable center of gravity if the spear or bucket is raised too high, or if you drive over uneven or steep terrain. Proper use of the machine’s rollover protective structure and seat restraints is necessary to ensure safe operation. Always keep in mind that the best way to move bales is “slow and low.” Use moderate speeds and keep the bale as low as possible for maximum stability.

A regular Grit contributor, Tim Nephew lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat.

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