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Reduce hay losses by covered storage
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A common part of rural scenes in Mississippi alongside grazing cattle and picturesque houses and barns are the round bales of hay dotting pastures.
While it may look pretty, hay is not made for its beauty, and storing it outside can cut its value as a feed in half.
Richard Watson, forage specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said hay stored outside typically loses 40 percent to 50 percent of its nutrients in one year. Losses come from weather, mold and animal waste.
"A lot of money goes into baling hay. It costs between $30 and $50 to make one bale, and that doesn't account for anything like fertilizer or storage," Watson said. "If you're losing 50 percent of that hay's value in one year, that's about a $20 loss per bale."
Watson said storing hay on the ground outside is about the worst thing a producer can do to hay. The bale is exposed to the weather and as it sits on the ground, the hay draws water out of the ground into the dry bale where mold can grow and the bale can rot.
Watson said the best way to store hay is off the ground and under shelter.
"Build a pole barn, remove the topsoil under it and put a layer of gravel down," Watson said. "You can reduce storage waste to about 2 percent a year when hay is stored under cover."
A pole barn is inexpensive to build, and by eliminating losses of about $20 per bale per year, can pay for itself in just a few years.
"The average farmer makes more hay than he really needs," Watson said. "If you produce good quality hay and store it so it doesn't lose its value, you could cut the amount of hay you need in half."
But if covered storage is not an option, there are a few things producers can do to reduce hay losses.
"Stacking it will help since you get less soiling and less moisture coming out of the ground," Watson said. "But even when stacked, bales usually touch each other and where they touch, moisture is retained and mold grows, resulting in about a 30 percent loss."
If hay must be stored outdoors, get it off the ground. Watson recommended using a gravel bed, old tires or a wooden rack to elevate the hay. When stacking bales, leave a gap to allow air movement around the bales, reducing the potential for moisture accumulation.
Bale wraps work well to preserve the quality of the hay, but these require an initial investment in machinery. Covering the bales with a plastic sheet and raising them off the ground can cut losses to about 10 percent to 15 percent a year. Store them in open, well-drained areas rather than damp places such as under trees.
Dalton Garner, Prentiss County Extension director, has offered programming to educate area producers on the value of sheltering baled hay. More than 80 percent of the hay produced in his area is stored outside, and he wants producers to know what they are losing each year using this storage method.
"We took samples of six bales of the same hay, some that had been stored in a shed and some that had been stored outside. The hay was weighed and samples were sent off for analysis," Garner said. "Producers were asked to estimated the weight and quality of each of the bales. Answers varied widely as producers did not know how much quality was lost in outdoor storage."
After the meeting, some producers made plans to construct hay storage facilities. Construction costs for these pole barns were estimated at $3 per square foot, or $3.13 per bale per year for 10 years.
"Using conservative estimates, each producer should save about $6 per bale each year by preventing hay losses," Garner said. "If you take a production cost of $25 per bale, you would lose at least 36 percent of its value, or $9, storing it outside. That same hay stored in the shed would lose essentially no value in one year at a storage cost of just over $3, resulting in an almost $6 per bale savings each year."