Much of the hay harvested now will be used as a main feed source this coming winter, says Ron Lemenager, a Purdue Extension beef specialist. Improper storage can lead to losses in weight or dry matter, as well as the vital nutrients required by animals - such as soluble energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.
"In an ideal world, producers would store hay bales inside," he says. "But, with most producers using large, round bales, that's often not possible."
For outdoor storage protecting hay quality starts with baling. The moisture level of the crop should be 15-18%. Anything above 22% poses a spontaneous combustion risk from bacterial growth. The same is true for bales with internal temperatures approaching 170 degrees, so producers making wet hay need to monitor bale temperatures, especially when hay is stored inside.
He also pointed out that farmers need to bale hay tightly and uniformly because tight, uniform bales shed water much better than loose, dipped or coned bales. And if using twine, farmers need to put enough on - every 6-8 inches - to securely hold bales together. Another option is to use net wrap instead of twine.
Once harvest and baling are complete, producers need to consider storage site.
"It's important for the storage site to be well-drained," Lemenager says. "Farmers can use 1-2 inches of crushed rock to prevent moisture wicking into the bottom of bales. They also can store bales on top of old poles, tires or pallets to minimize ground contact."
Hay should not be stored in shaded areas, he said, and unless it is stored inside, bales should never be stacked because too much moisture gets trapped and causes spoilage.
The best way to store hay outdoors is to tightly pack bales end-to-end in a north-south orientation so the morning sun dries one side of the bales and the afternoon sun dries the other, Lemenager says.
Keeping hay in the best possible condition is especially important this year because the delayed first cutting means farmers are starting out with a lower quality crop. Should the wet spring be followed by a dry period, producers need to make sure they minimize loss from the first cutting because second and third cuttings may be lower-yielding or non-existent.
"Keeping what we've got is important," Lemenager says.