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Published February 10, 2014, 10:00 AM

Covering hay piles provides more feed supply

Hay producers across the country are increasingly aware of the need to protect their alfalfa production from weather damage.

By: SDSU Extension Service,

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Hay producers across the country are increasingly aware of the need to protect their alfalfa production from weather damage.

“The main goals when covering hay piles are to keep the hay dry and prevent dry matter losses. As the demand and price of alfalfa increases, producers invest more effort in protecting their valuable hay,” says Karla Hernandez, South Dakota State University Extension forage field specialist.

She explains that traditionally, protected alfalfa hay has been stored in three ways: a hay barn or commodity shed, under plastic tarps and a breathable hay tarp.

“It is important to know that poor quality tarps or improperly installed tarps may cause more damage to alfalfa hay than having no tarp or cover at all,” she says.

Hernandez reminds growers that achieving quality hay is a group effort from harvest to feedout, and it requires diligence and attention to detail from producers to ensure forage quality does not become a limiting factor.

Three traditional storage methods include:

• Hay barn: A hay barn or commodity shed is considered to be a consistent, highly effective method of storing hay.

“It provides the advantages of keeping water from the hay, and it allows for acceptable moisture loss if well stored and ventilated. However, one disadvantage of this method is that barns can be expensive to build and maintain, as well as they need real estate in the farmyard to build,” Hernandez says.

• Plastic hay tarps: Plastic hay tarps offer maximum flexibility.

“The advantage of plastic traps is they allow more protection while minimizing field transportation,” she says. “It allows hay to be stored in the field or in the bale yard until is ready to use or to be sold.”

A producer who tarps his hay has the flexibility to sell it when the market price and his price goals coincide. They are cheap and keep water off the bale, and are easy to manage. But one disadvantage of plastic tarps, Hernandez notes, is that often there are issues with trapping moisture as the bale dries out. Another disadvantage is they often suffer from exposure to ultra-violet light, that significantly reduces their service life.

• Breathable hay tarp: Similar to a plastic tarp in usage, Hernandez says hay tarps are made of a breathable material which allows moisture to leave the bale and also prevents precipitation from penetrating.

“It is similar to the commercial product ‘Goretex’ in function. People who work outdoors appreciate this material for its ability to keep their feet dry in a durable lightweight fabric boot,” she says.

The advantages of this breathable tarp are as follows: it allows passage of air and vapor thus preventing mold growth; provides excellent protection against rain; resistant to wind lifting; maximum drying of damp straw after downpours; extremely tear resistant (they have been shown to withstand strong winds); and ultra-violet light stable (which leads to a long service life).

A disadvantage of this product is that it is more expensive than a traditional tarp.

Hernandez says they can be up to five times the cost of a plastic tarp.

After the forage has been properly covered, Hernandez says no matter which storage option you select, it is important to regularly inspect and repair the covered surfaces of the hay to maintain feed quality.

“In general, catching a damaged cover early can help minimize spoilage from excessive moisture,” she says. “An annual evaluation of covering and feeding practices can help a livestock producer extend their hay inventory and feed higher quality forage all year long.”

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