Maintain forage quality by storing bales off the ground
After 2011’s weather played havoc on the hay crop, many farmers are looking to get the most out of their forage this year. To do that, they are investing in better methods to preserve hay quality.
The primary factors that affect hay loss haven’t changed, says West Virginia University forage researcher Ed Rayburn. "The biggest place where we have loss is where the bale touches the ground, from rainfall getting into the soil and then getting soaked back up by the bale."
According to West Virginia University research, hay stored in a barn will lose 5% dry matter on average, while hay stored uncovered on the ground will lose 33% dry matter. Even under roof, round bales can draw moisture through a dirt floor or concrete pad. Hay that is stored outside but is covered and elevated on pallets yields about 8% storage loss, depending on weather conditions.
"Farmers need to at least put hay on a dry surface on top of a hill and preferably on coarse gravel or pallets. The most practical material is really coarse gravel, 6" thick, so no moisture is coming up from underneath," Rayburn says.
Once you protect the bottom of the bales, cover the top by storing them under roof or a tarp to protect hay from weather extremes and help preserve quality, he adds.
One farmer that Rayburn works with constructed a turn-key 70'×42' building with 14' eaves and a 4" concrete floor. "Lined with gravel, it would cost about $17 per square foot. With 2,940 total square feet, the building holds 388 round bales, stacked three high," Rayburn says. The total cost was about $50,000.
Rayburn figures that with recent changes in forage costs and compared with storing hay outside, this West Virginia farmer could recoup his investment in about 10 years—or less, if a rock-only floor was used. "The concrete floor added 20% to the total cost of the barn," he explains.
Depending on the local tax code’s definition of depreciation, which varies from state to state and even within states, a permanent structure can carry a heavy tax burden, however.
Tarp it tight. On a practical basis, tarping is one of the cheapest ways to cover and protect hay, says Tammy McKinley, University of Tennessee Extension ag economist.
"Using a less permanent method of storage, such as stacking and tarping on pallets, tires, etc., can reduce storage losses while allowing farmers to locate hay closer to where it was produced or where it will be fed later," she says.
It also allows individual rows of bales or stacks of bales to be covered. The most common stacking method is three bales on the ground, two bales in the middle and a single bale on top, which gets at least half of your bale crop off the ground, Rayburn says.
He figures that a high-quality hay tarp, costing about $600 and covering about 72 bales, "would have three years of life, so you could get that cost down to about $3 per bale. You would also need to factor in cost for the gravel pad or pallets as well," he adds.
While there are other costs associated with tarping hay, such as additional labor during feeding periods and the cost to maintain the tarps (most will last only two to three years), it is a more flexible option, McKinley says.
Plan accordingly. "How farmers store and feed hay has a tremendous impact on the amount and quality of hay available for their herd. If storing hay outside and uncovered, farmers lose about every third bale, which means they must increase the amount produced to make up for the loss," McKinley says. "If they don’t increase the number of bales they produce, they are potentially not meeting the dry matter requirements of their herd. Not to mention the reduced quality of hay if it has been stored outside and uncovered."
"Farmers need to sharpen their pencils this year to make sure they retain as much of their forage investment as possible," Rayburn says.