Stacking, wrapping, storing and preserving your round bales in the most efficient way.
Although round baleage is becoming a popular method of harvesting and storing forages for dairy and beef producers, dry round bales is still a common method of handling and storing dry forages. Improperly stored round bales can result in substantial losses for the producer. Outside, uncovered storage of round bales is very common. Many times, bales are stored along a fence row. While this method avoids the cost of a storage structure or site preparation, forage losses can be very high. The amount of forage lost during outside storage depends upon several factors, including the duration of storage, precipitation, site drainage, bale density and bale dimensions. Dry matter loss can range from five percent to more than 40 percent. In the Midwest, with storage periods often exceeding several months, forage loss is seldom below 15 percent.
There are rare situations where farmers are better off to take their losses‚ than worry about protecting bales. In these cases, stacking bales end-to-end in a north-south direction, away from trees, and leaving approximately three feet between rows can help reduce losses. This arrangement allows enough sunlight and wind movement to keep the bales dry.
A base to keep the bales off of moisture-retaining soil will give the producer an even bigger pay back. Examples of bases include pallets, gravel, rocks and railroad ties. The purpose is to decrease wicking and absorption of moisture by the bale from the soil and also allow drainage after rains or snow melt. Losses only multiply if bales are piled closely together and/or stacked in multiple layers without a cover. Even mushroom stacking allows for a lot of storage loss to the bottom bale if not placed on a raised bed.
In-barn hay storage can drastically reduce storage losses. Due to respiring microorganisms in hay, some losses will inevitably occur, but in-barn storage can reduce losses to about four percent. The total cost for in-barn storage is usually $18 to $22 per ton and includes the structure, extra machinery and extra labor. When comparing outside, uncovered storage to in-barn storage, farmers must realize that they may have to purchase machinery that can stack bales appropriately and safely. Machinery probably amounts to less than 25 percent of the total storage cost, but it should be considered. Also, additional labor will be needed to transport the hay to the barn, stack it and later remove it. Extra labor probably amounts to less than 15 percent of the total cost for in-barn storage.
Many times, an existing barn can be used to store hay. However, at prices of only $5 to $10 per square foot, special structures for storing hay can usually be justified. An enclosed building, or one with an open south-facing wall, will help keep rain and snow out of the storage area. Hay storage structures should have ample height (the structure should leave two or three feet above the bales for stacking room), proper ventilation to avoid moisture buildup and sufficiently strong walls to hold the bale load. Even though it is more difficult, stacking the bales on end is recommended for indoor storage because the barn walls will not have to withstand the weight of the hay stack. It also makes better use of the total space available.
Group covering of a large stack of round bales is a good alternative to in-barn storage. A heavy tarp can reduce weather damage. Many times bales are stacked in a triangular shape, with three bales forming the triangle base. (The average height of the stack is then two bale lengths.) The tarp used to cover the stack should be about five feet wide for each foot of bale diameter. For example, a 25-foot wide tarp will cover five-foot diameter bales that are stacked three high in a triangular formation.
It is important to prepare the storage site for proper drainage. One- to three-inch stones laid about four to eight inches deep will work well, as would pallets or old tires. Try to locate the storage on a site with few wind gusts, and make sure the tarp is adequately fastened to the bales. It is probably best to keep the stack ends open for ventilation. Some stakes or small posts may be needed to keep the stack from rolling apart. Losses in a well-constructed group covering will be considerably less than those incurred with outside storage, but they will be higher than in-barn storage losses. Generally, a loss of seven percent is unavoidable. The total cost of a group covering system lies in the neighborhood of $10 per ton. The covering material accounts for about 25 percent of the cost, the added labor another 25 percent, the machinery 40 percent, and site preparation 10 percent.
Individual wrapping with a bale wrapper can reduce weather losses considerably. It is still important to have excellent drainage at the storage site to avoid water accumulation in the bottom of the bales. If the bales are properly wrapped and the site is well constructed, individual wrapping will result in losses similar to group covering losses. Generally, the cost of bale wrap is higher than the cost of group covering material, but individual wrapping has the convenience of not having to cover many bales at once. Disposal of the wrap material can be a disadvantage, but generally a well wrapped bale properly placed on a raised storage bed is cost effective.
What is the best storage option? With several hay storage options available, selecting the best option becomes very difficult. In-barn hay storage is nearly always better than outside, uncovered storage‚ even if in-barn storage means building a barn, buying an attachment for handling bales, and hiring someone to do the extra handling. Round bale storage protection to reduce loss will nearly always increase profits.
Ray Bisek is with the University of Minnesota Extension in Mehnomen, Minn.