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Be Kind To Bales

With production costs running over $45 for a single round bale, proper hay storage should be a priority, especially when the high price of replacing spoilage is considered.

Ben Stonecypher, Tennessee Angus seed stock producer, is the first to admit that, like most forage producers in his community, he didn’t think much about his hay after it was baled.

“There was always so much of it around, and it was cheap to produce. I didn’t concern myself with a little bit of spoilage,” he recalls. “The thought of covering bales never crossed my mind.”

Stonecypher’s attitude toward round bale storage began to change in early 2000 when he first noticed a gradual rise in the costs associated with hay production. At the same time, higher value crops like corn and soybeans were starting to replace much of the hay acreage in his area.

“That was when I seriously started looking into protecting the hay I had already baled,” he says, adding that what he learned about how much hay he actually
lost by not properly storing his bales was a real eye-opener.

Edward Rayburn, forage agronomist with the West Virginia University Extension service, is well aware of the impact weather and ground moisture can have on poorly stored round bales. He notes, that in recent studies, low-density round bales, stored on the ground, uncovered, can lose up to 61% of their dry matter in the first year with average losses running 20% to 25% Rayburn says just because big round bales offer less surface area for moisture to penetrate, hay producers shouldn’t develop a false sense of security when evaluating storage.

When spoilage does occur, the losses can be even more significant in the large bales that can weigh up to a half a ton apiece.

“If your large round bales are improperly stored and completely ruined, your losses could be significantly more than they would be in a stack of small square bales,” he says.

So what can be done to reduce losses and protect your investment?

Rayburn, who has thoroughly analyzed the economic impact of leaving round bales exposed to the elements, says it can be as easy as keeping them off the wet ground and throwing a tarp or a sheet of plastic over the top of the bale. “Top covers definitely show the greatest return to the producer,” he says. “Average losses drop from 25% to 8%.”

This difference in spoilage-related losses translates into real dollars out of the pockets of livestock producers, says Rayburn. “Without looking at the actual numbers, it is difficult for some beef producers to really comprehend how much it is costing them when they leave their bales unprotected,” he says. “When they see the figures, they are shocked.”

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In West Virginia, studies show losses for covered bales on 6 inches of gravel at around 8%, while losses for unprotected bales sitting on the ground run around 33%. With a 25% feeding difference between protected and unprotected hay, produces would have to produce or purchase 25% more hay to feed the equivalent number of cattle if their intention was to leave those bales uncovered and on the ground rather than covered and on gravel.

Taking this information to the next level, it is estimated that on 25 dry cows the 180-day maintenance requirement is approximately 55 tons of air-dried hay.
Considering the 8% projected loss for covered bales on gravel, this would mean that producers would have to produce 59.8 tons in order to feed the 25 dry cows.
In contrast, if producers chose not to cover their bales and stored them on the ground, they would have to produce 82 tons in order to feed the same number of cattle over the same length of time.

With a modest replacement value of $60 per ton for feeder hay, the final difference in cost between the protected and the unprotected hay (22.2 tons) is approximately $1,332.

“We are looking at a substantial out-of-pocket expense,” says Rayburn. “The question the rancher should be asking is, ‘What is it going to cost to avoid having to pay out the extra money to replace spoiled hay?’"

Exploring Options

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Having concluded that reducing spoilage in his own hay made better financial sense than buying replacement forage, Stonecypher weighed his options. With no existing structures available for hay storage, he turned to covering his bales with tarps he purchased from his local farm supply store. While the tarps were an improvement over leaving his hay totally exposed, Stonecypher was not satisfied with their overall performance.

“They had grommets that would rip out in wind storms,” he recalls. “I immediately started looking for a better mousetrap.”

After trying various products, Stonecypher settled on a tarping system that avoided the use of grommets and incorporated easy-release cinches in place of hand-tied knots.
Stonecypher was so impressed with his new tarps that after using them for three years, he went to work for the Washington state-based manufacturer as its Eastern sales representative.

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Glen Knopp, general manager of that company, Inland Tarp and Cover, is not surprised by Stonecypher’s enthusiasm for his product. He sees a growing number of savvy beef producers integrating tarps into their winter-feeding strategy.

Typically, in this scenario, hay is purchased at the harvest site and tarped immediately. With arrangements made with the seller for longer-term storage, the purchaser can then remove the bales as needed, avoiding the necessity of hauling the hay twice.

As for the overall material cost of protecting your investment, Knopp calculates that by stacking round bales in a 3-2-1-pyramid fashion, two 25x52-foot heavy-duty tarps worth $272 apiece (ropes and cinches included) will cover up to 66 tons of hay. Knopp points out that with the life span on his high-quality tarps averaging four years, the final cost to protect that hay investment would run approximately $2 a ton and should pay for itself in one season.

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