larger diameter bales

Experts say larger diameter bales — closer to 6 feet than 5 feet — will have less loss depending on how they are stored.

Management decisions, equipment maintenance and proper storage can have a big impact on waste and efficiency when baling hay.

Andy McCorkill, a University of Missouri livestock specialist, says producers should tailor bale size to their facilities and animals, but overall bigger bales are more efficient.

“The larger diameter bales, you’ll have less loss,” he says. “Smaller bales, you have basically two times the surface area exposed for the same amount of hay.”

Jason Banta, an Extension beef specialist with Texas A&M University, says it is important to get a bale size that equipment can handle.

“Some producers just don’t have a large enough tractor to handle some of the bigger bales comfortably,” he says.

But if increasing the size of bales is possible, Banta says he encourages going from 5 feet in diameter to more like 6 feet.

“If we can increase the diameter on those bales, for bales that’ll be stored outside, we’ll see less storage loss,” he says.

Bale density

Brian Dougherty, an ag engineer with Iowa State University Extension, says that efficiency for bigger bales comes from less dry matter loss and less twine or net wrap used.

When it comes to hay bale density, the baler settings and the forage itself are the key factors.

Dougherty says denser bales have a variety of benefits. He recommends making the densest bales a baler can achieve without exceeding what can be handled safely.

“The more dense your bale is, it’s going to repel water better,” he says. “It’s going to keep from picking up moisture from the ground as much. It’s going to avoid spoilage more.”

Dougherty says for dry bales, 9 to 13 pounds of dry matter per cubic foot is a good target. Denser bales hold their shape better, especially if they are net wrapped.

“You’re going to end up with higher feed quality with net-wrapped bales,” he says.

McCorkill, who covers several counties in southern Missouri, says producers can adjust windrows as forage volume varies during the year and with different forage types.

“The quicker you can get the forage into the baler, the tighter the bale,” he says.

Banta says producers hiring custom hay work done can discuss denser bales.

“Visiting with custom hay producers, being open to the idea of paying a dollar or two more, or even a few dollars more, to make those bales denser,” he says. “A lot of custom balers, they’re pretty agreeable on that.”

Hay storage

McCorkill says producers have options when storing hay, even if they can’t get it all under a roof.

“In a perfect world, everybody would have a nice long hay barn to store a year’s worth of hay,” he says. “But in Missouri, that isn’t always the case.”

Producers should consider rainfall when storing hay outside. A gravel base can cut down on moisture loss and make it easier to get to the bales.

“The higher the rainfall is, obviously the more concerns we’re going to have with storage losses outside,” Banta says.

McCorkill says it’s not a good idea to store hay under trees, because the water still leaks through the leaves and then drying is slowed.

“Then you don’t get the sun and wind to help dry,” he says.

When deciding where to store bales outdoors, Banta says it can be helpful to consult the USDA Web Soil Survey. Producers can identify less productive soil on which to store the bales, and they can store on soils that drain water better.

Another good practice is to keep a little more space between rows of hay bales stored outdoors.

“A good rule of thumb is to put 3 feet between those rows, or enough width to drive a small four-wheeler between them,” Banta says.

Hay testing

This spacing also makes it easier to get hay cores for testing. Banta says hay testing is a good idea because even hay put up on the same farm will vary in nutrition from cutting to cutting and from field to field.

The ideal time for hay testing is in the fall, or about four to six weeks before hay feeding begins, Banta says. A hay test is also a good idea before buying hay, and Banta says buyers can offer to pay for the test and share the results with the seller whether they buy the hay or not.

“It’s pretty easy to justify testing when you look at it relative to feed cost,” he says.

McCorkill sees value in hay tests as well.

“You want to know what it is before you’re buying it,” he says. “Even if you’re harvesting your own, it’s good to have a quantitive number of what you have. It helps us do a better job of building a feed ration around it.”

Dougherty recommends producers buy hay by the ton and not by the bale. He also says farmers should remember safety when transporting hay.

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.