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Minimizing loss: UNL Extension educators provide hay storage considerations

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension Beef Educator Steve Niemeyer joined UNL Assistant Extension Beef Educator Connor Biehler during a UNL BeefWatch podcast on Oct. 24 to discuss minimizing storage losses of round bale hay.

As producers transition into fall and winter seasons, maintaining hay quality in storage becomes an important consideration.

“Whether producers are producing their own hay or they are purchasing it, they have either gone through the work or have got the economic investment into it, so it is best to store it and preserve it in a way producers are going to be able to get the greatest amount of feed out of it,” says Biehler.

Economical decisions

Niemeyer says storing round hay bales by lining them up against a fencerow may look easy, but it’s not an economical strategy for producers.

“Baled forage probably constitutes the highest percentage of winter feed cost we have wrapped up in a cow,” he says. “With the price of hay now up to $200 per ton, anything producers lose can be a big loss.”

Storing dry hay on the ground without cover can cause a greater amount of spoilage when compared to other methods of storage, he notes. 

“Results found from ranch research done in the Sandhills of Nebraska by the University of Nebraska Extension in 2005-08 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,” says Niemeyer. “However, visual damage losses after one year between covered and uncovered with twine or net wrap were reported.”


Niemeyer recommends producers consider what time of year their hay is cut and baled when deciding how to store their bales. Depending on when the hay is fed, hay baled in late spring/early summer will have a significant higher opportunity for loss due to the impact of moisture and weather conditions than a fourth cutting put up in September. The earlier the hay is cut and baled, the longer it will sit in warm and possibly humid conditions, increasing the likelihood of spoilage

Niemeyer says there are many different methods of storing round bales, and there is no “right way” for all producers. He says when storing bales outside, it is important to consider bale density and how the bales are stacked. 

“When producers are storing hay outside, make a dense bale – it will shed more precipitation and it should sag less with less surface area to absorb the moisture,” he says.

Although not all producers like to use net wrap because it can cause challenges during feeding, it does offer benefits, he says.

“Net wrap will be able to reduce the bale sag and maintain the bale shape in a better format,” says Niemeyer. “Also, it’s probably better for selling purposes if you’re reselling hay.” 

He also recommends storing bales in a well-drained location, not too close to fence lines where the snow will accumulate and pile up. 

“We like to have a four to six inch course rock base if possible, depending on where producers store the hay,” Niemeyer says. “This would help to minimize the bottom spoilage of the bale.” 

Niemeyer suggests storing bales end to end in rows with at least 10 feet between rows if possible.

He doesn’t recommend stacking bales on top of each other if the bales will be sitting for a while. Rain will run off the top bale and soak into the bale below, causing moisture damage to the bale. He says it is best to spread bales out so there’s adequate air space. 

“We found in our research plot, stacking the bales usually increased losses,” he says.

Niemeyer also recommends considering quality and value. 

“One thing to remember is if producers have 20 percent loss on a $200 per ton bale, that’s a whole lot different than a $100 per ton bale dollar difference and what producers are losing in storage,” he says.

Moisture accumulation

Biehler says there’re three different ways moisture can accumulate on bales; rainfall, snowmelt and humidity. 

“The tops of bales absorb some of the rain and snowmelt and then if producers have standing moisture or moisture where the hay is sitting, the bottom will wick that up from the ground,” he says.

Producers should consider the length of time the bales are being exposed, Biehler says.

“We want to use some of the older hay we harvested first and get it fed. The main reason is during the winter time, we are counting on the forage to be our main source of feed, and that can really affect our rations,” he says. “If we have 20 percent loss or 20 percent spoilage, that’s 20 percent of hay out the door right away.” 

Niemeyer notes in a six foot diameter round bale, the first four inches around the outside are about 21 percent of the dry matter in the bale, and those outside four inches are also where most of the damage can take place. 

“Producers don’t always think about this, but it is where the spoilage can come from right away,” he says.

Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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