By William Edwards

Why work hard and spend money to produce a quality product and then throw a quarter of it away? That is what many producers do by not investing in quality storage options for their harvested hay.

Various options exist for storing hay bales, whether they are small squares, large squares or round bales. The lowest-cost alternative is simply leaving them on bare ground, with no covering. However, researchers have found that bales can lose as much as 30% or 40% of their dry matter after just six months when stored this way.

Ground covers
If bales are stored on bare ground, they should at least be on a slope that is well-drained. A fairly low-cost option is to spread a layer of crushed rock or gravel on the surface area where bales will be stored. This will reduce the amount of moisture that seeps into the bales over time. An even better base can be provided by arranging used wooden pallets. These not only form a moisture barrier, but also allow air to circulate under the bales, reducing storage losses by two-thirds or more. The cost of pallets can vary widely, depending on the source.

Top covers
Bales can be protected even further by covering them with a plastic tarp. This choice is more economical when bales can be stacked several layers high. Uncovered bales should not be stacked, however, as this prevents water from running away from them and keeps them from drying out. Low-cost plastic requires a minimal investment but may not be reusable. More costly thick plastic or canvas tarps can be used for multiple years. Properly positioning and fastening a large tarp may require two or three individuals working together.

Individual covers have become more economical and more popular in recent years. Bales wrapped with plastic netting or sleeves shed water better than those wrapped only with twine. Plastic bags do a good job of preserving hay quality but require an investment in bagging equipment. While more expensive, they may be cost-effective for high-quality forage. Bale wraps and bags generally can be used only once, however, and create a disposal problem.

Storage buildings
For higher-quality hay, investing in permanent storage facilities may be the most economical choice in the long run, when reduced spoilage losses are taken into account. Storage structures can range from refurbishing an existing barn or shed, to erecting a pole barn with a roof but no sides, to constructing a completely enclosed building. These options involve a higher initial cost, so they should be undertaken only when a consistent volume of hay is likely to be produced over a longer period of time.

The cost of buildings for hay storage depends on the interest rate associated with the initial capital investment and the expected life of the structure. USDA’s Farm Service Agency offers loans at below market interest rates, currently under 3% annually, for hay storage structures. Maintenance costs should be minimal, especially in the early years. Existing buildings often can be refurbished at a low cost. However, they may offer less convenience for getting bales in and out of storage.

Other considerations
Labor requirements will vary widely by system. Simply moving bales to the edge of the field and dropping them on a surface requires a minimal amount of labor. Covering them with a tarp will add some more time. Moving bales to a storage building and stacking them inside will require the most labor, and the effort will be duplicated when they are removed. What value to put on the producer’s own labor is arbitrary and may depend on what other activities need to be performed during the forage harvesting season.

Livestock producers who need a certain quantity of hay each year to meet their animals’ nutritional needs have an extra consideration. Storage systems with a high dry matter loss will require them to devote extra acres to hay production to meet the needs of their herd or flock, adding extra production costs.

Decision tools available
At least two spreadsheets are available for analyzing the costs of various hay storage options — one from Iowa State University and one from the University of Wisconsin. The ISU Ag Decision Maker website offers a Hay Storage Cost Comparison tool, File A2-37, which compares up to eight storage choices. It takes into account the annual costs for covers and labor, as well as the initial cost of surfaces and buildings. It also factors in the value of storage losses, to compute an overall storage cost for each system.

In addition, the user can specify the annual forage needs for the farm or ranch, and the spreadsheet will calculate the total cost of production for meeting that need after adjusting for spoilage loss. This spreadsheet offers an example analysis. You can input values for your own situation as much as possible, however.

The University of Wisconsin Extension’s Team Forage group has developed a slightly different spreadsheet called “Comparing Round Bale Storage Costs.” It compares storing hay on bare ground, a macadam surface, and wooden pallets, with and without cover, as well as in a storage building. Storage periods of both six months and 12 months are analyzed. Look for a link to that spreadsheet under the Hay Storage Sizing and Management section of the Team Forage website.

More information about the economics of hay storage can be found in the following sources:
Round Hay Bale Storage. Raymond L. Huhnke, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service publication BAE-1716
• Hay Storage Sizing and Management. Team Forage, University of Wisconsin Extension
• Hay Storage and Feeding Management. Bob Schultheis, University of Missouri Extension

Edwards is a retired ISU Extension farm management economist and veteran member of the Wallaces Farmer Timely Tips panel.