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Northwest Iowa Dairy Outlooks

A local discussion of current science and issues concerning dairying in northwest iowa

Producers in this area have rolled up some fantastic wheat and grass hay this year; however, many bales are left sitting out in the fields. One field I drive by everyday had several days to pick up the bales before Mother Nature dropped five plus inches of rain on them. While hay bales may make the countryside more scenic, producers may not realize the cost of leaving the hay on the field longer than necessary.

Once the bales have sweated out, the bales should be taken to the permanent storage area and stacked. Much of the cost of a hay bale is in cutting, baling and hauling, not the forage itself. Depending on yield, it can cost up to $45 to cut, roll and transport a 1500-pound bale. If the bale is valued at $100, the forage in the bale is worth $55. When about half the cost of the bale is spent on cutting, baling and moving, it makes good sense to protect those bales as much as possible.

Damage to the stand

The forage plants smothered by a hay bale will be suppressed until the bale is removed. The longer the bale stays in one spot, the less likely the forage plants will recover.  The area then becomes a prime site for weed  invasion if the bales sets for over a week. Weed control costs add to the variable cost of the next crop or fixed costs if the field has to be renovated.

Most of the damage, however, is due to wheel traffic on the regrowth especially in legumes and forbs. Nebraska studies reported by Dr. Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska agronomy professor show that when alfalfa fields are dry, plants driven on before regrowth occurs yield about 5-7 percent less at next cutting.

Even worse was waiting to remove bales. Just seven days after cutting, when regrowth shoots had started to grow, yield was reduced by more than 25 percent and survival of these plants also was less.

Worst of all is removing bales when fields are wet, as wheel traffic causes much more compaction, with yield loss potentially exceeding 30 percent.

These studies emphasize the benefits of baling and removing bales from hay fields as quickly as possible after cutting, as well as minimizing driving on wet soils. They also suggest that following the same trail when removing bales or stacks from fields can reduce losses from wheel tracks by limiting the total area damaged.

Damage to the bale

Bales left in the field often flatten out and soften. Loading, handling and hauling those bales can be difficult as some of the bales will fall apart and dry matter losses will increase.

Hay that is stored outside is subject to wetting and drying cycles that lead to the degradation and leaching of nutrients from the bales. Over time, this causes the fiber (indigestible) component of the forage to represent a larger proportion of the bales dry weight. The loss of nutrients (Total Digestible Nutrients, or TDN) can often be as much as 15 to 20 percent in weathered bales.

A bale left in the field is exposed to the elements in all directions. If three inches of the outside surface of a 5 x 6 bale is spoiled, it represents about 30 percent of  the hay in that bale. In a 1,500-pound a 30 percent loss represents 450 pounds of hay. Storing bales properly reduces the number of exposed surfaces and can reduce losses, especially if shelter can be provided.

To help mitigate losses on hay stored outdoors, run rows of hay bales on an upland site away from shade from trees. This speeds up the drying process. Place the bales with a north-south orientation and southern exposure. Set bales in rows so that the flat sides are touching — not the round sides. This keeps rain from ponding on top of bales. Also, keep rows at least three feet apart to allow for sunlight and good air circulation.

Keeping bales off the ground, either by using pallets, crossties, or rocks, is critical in preventing substantial losses especially in rainy seasons.

Some producers store bales in the “mushroom” style, where the bottom bale is on end while the top bale lies on its side. This style provides less protection than end-to-end, especially if the rows are tight to each other. It’s been found that the bottom bales tend to act as a wick and draw moisture from the ground.

The result of poor storage techniques is a weathered layer that is very low in quality and unpalatable to livestock. Livestock can often be seen eating the middle out of these round bales leaving a “doughnut”-shaped bale.

When bales are stored outside and uncovered, weathering may affect depths up to 12 inches. The depth will vary based on factors such as bales tightness (i.e. density), storage on unprotected ground, storage under trees and more. It is a general expectation, however, for a weathered layer of 4 to 6 inches for bales stored outside on the ground. This is important because the outer portions of bales make up for a disproportionate amount of the bale’s volume. Losses of only a few inches represent a substantial loss in terms of total bale volume.

For example, a weathered depth of only four inches on a 5-foot bale actually equals a 25 percent loss in terms of forage volume. Other studies have shown that losses of 14 inches on bales equates to losses of 74 percent, nearly three-fourths of a bale could be lost simply because it isn’t stored properly.

Texas A&M AgriLife Agricultural Economist Dr. Jason Johnson notes that from an economic perspective, “It is better to have not made a hay crop at all and lost all of the pre-harvest expenses than to make a crop, spend the money to cut and bale it, and let it waste away losing all its feeding value and negatively affecting re-growth because the bales were not handled, moved, and stored properly.  In the end you will lose more money with that scenario than if you had never harvested a single bale.

Since hay quality is a key component of animal performance, and proper hay storage is a key component of hay quality. Hay loss can be expected, even under a barn, so mitigation and risk management is the key to maintaining as much of your investment as possible.

For more information checkout the publication “Round Bale Hay Storage” on our website at:






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