The U.S. drought of 2012 has left most livestock producers in the Midwest and beyond scrambling for more hay.
Earlier this summer, I expressed what county Extension agents are verifying: Unprecedented hay prices are the reality, mainly the result of hay buying pressure to supplement out-of-state demand.
Even though we looked relatively good in North Dakota, compared with the states deeply affected by the drought, as the summer wore on to yield little or no second cutting, in many cases, hay yields are off by 30 to 50 percent. This further adds to supply-and-demand concerns.
Many livestock producers are looking for ways to stretch their feed resources. Two of the quickest ways to waste this precious commodity are to delay hauling and failing to protect your forage.
Round bales, the most common form of baling, inherently are designed to shed water, but you still can lose 15 to 30 percent of a harvested hay crop if it is left outside uncovered. So if hay yields on a farm are 50 percent lower because of the weather a producer can cut this shortfall substantially by covering the hay.
Even farms that have invested in net-wrapped round bales but leave them outside will find that providing more protection from moisture will save them hay. Research at various Midwest universities has revealed that round-baled, twine-tied hay sitting on the ground uncovered will suffer a total loss of 20 to 35 percent on average.
Net-wrapped round bales have become very popular, and many assume that net wrapping protects the bales from rainfall. Net wrapping does protect the hay to an extent because it makes the bale surface smoother and denser so it can shed water, but the advantage is not great.
University of Kentucky trials found net-wrapped bales still lose 15 to 25 percent of their total dry-matter hay on average when stored outside. Although much of the rain runs off the net-wrapped surface, enough soaks into the outer layer of the hay to cause deterioration. Also, the researchers found that much of the rain was running to the bottom of the bale and being absorbed by the hay where it contacts the soil surface, causing spoilage.
Some factors to keep in mind that affect hay loss are:
- The amount of moisture the hay is exposed to, such as rainfall, snow, dew or ground moisture.
- The number of months the hay is exposed before it is fed: A wet summer and fall will cause more loss than a dry one.
- The air temperature during the storage period (higher temperatures lead to greater losses).
- The type of hay (for example, alfalfa and second or third cuttings): The more digestible the hay is for animals, the more digestible it will be for bacteria that spoil hay.