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This spring, there are regions around the country that are short of hay and forage. Other areas have surplus hay stacked in long rows in feedyards or at the sides of hayfields. Buyers may see this surplus as an option to fill their bale yards now instead of worrying about securing hay supplies later in the summer. Buyers are looking for deals and sellers want to make room for the next hay crop. Everybody wins: Well, maybe.

Hay is a perishable commodity that deteriorates when exposed to weather. Time is a factor. For example, 90 days after cutting, the vitamin precursors lose strength and animals will require supplementation. The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E are the first nutrients to oxidize. Injecting or feeding vitamins 90 days after animals are taken off fresh forage is necessary until they are put back on pasture the following spring.

Bales stored under a shed, covered or wrapped in plastic do not deteriorate over the winter as much as hay stored outdoors. If you were to feed test in the spring and compare it to the results from the previous fall, the protein, fibre (energy) and mineral content of the hay stored under cover would be very similar. This is not the case for hay stored outdoors, uncovered, and on the ground.

In a six-foot-diameter round bale, 27 per cent of the weight is found in the outer five inches of the bale. For every inch of rain, 82 litres or 180 pounds of water will land on the bale. Some will run off, but some will enter the bale. When the exterior of the bale is rain soaked and is exposed to weather, it rots.

More weather damage occurs to legume hay compared to grass hay. Applying twine at four-inch spacing reduces moisture entry into the bale compared to bales with twine at eight-inch spacings. Net-wrapped bales shed rain better and have less damage than bales tied with twine. Bales wrapped with solid plastic have the least amount of damage. A denser or tighter bale sheds more water than a looser bale.

Late-summer and fall rains can reduce bale weights by eight to 12 per cent. A bale weighing 1,450 pounds in July can shrink to 1,275 pounds by October even though there may be no visible difference in the bale’s size or appearance. Last year’s bales that may have been wet (more than 20 per cent moisture) to start with and absorb excessive moisture from fall rains or contact with wet soil suffer higher levels of microbial activity. Moulds and bacteria have to live on something and what they use up first is the best nutrients. The soluble proteins and highly digestible sugars are consumed leaving off-coloured mouldy feed that reduces the feeding quality of the hay. Weather damage can increase the indigestible fibre levels in hay by five per cent or more and reduce energy levels by similar amounts. Hay that had 14 per cent protein in the fall may only have 11 to 12 per cent next spring, and TDN values can be reduced from 65 to 58 per cent. Our advice; even if you see last year’s feed test results, retest the hay before purchasing.

Storage methods

How the hay is stacked impacts the amount of hay retained in each bale and the quality retained. Stacking hay in pyramid-shaped piles can create conditions that cause damage. If the stacked bales are left uncovered, rain or moisture that lands on the top bale of the pyramid runs down between the bales into the middle layer. The same thing happens when moisture from the middle layer moves down to the bottom layer. This stacking system can create the most damage compared to other stacking methods. Dry matter loss from this system can be as high as 20 per cent.

The stacking of hay in a mushroom shape — the first bale flat-side down on the ground and the second placed on its side on top of the first bale — creates less damage than the pyramid. The Prairie Agriculture Machinery Institute reported 10.6 per cent spoilage in mushroom-stacked bales.

If storing bales outdoors over winter, place them in rows on their sides with six inches of space between each bale and three to four feet between the rows. Place the rows parallel to the prevailing winds to allow the snow to be blown out from between the rows. Damage to forage occurs where the bales touch each other. Storing hay on a high area or knoll allows rain or spring melt to run off rather than pool and damage the bottom of the bales.

Two-year-old hay

When hay is exposed to the elements for a year, damage occurs. Digestibility of the outer five inches of the bale is reduced by 20 per cent.

Overall forage digestibility in a round bale is reduced by 10 per cent. If the hay is kept over for a second year, further weight loss occurs and digestibility is reduced even further. In some situations, this older hay could be no better than cereal straw.

Much of the 2010 hay crop was rained on and turned many times before baling. Hay growers who waited four to eight weeks for the weather to change, harvested a larger volume of lower-quality mature hay. Generally, the feeding value of the 2010 forage crop was lower than what we consider to be average quality from other years.

If you compare the feeding value of straw and good hay from previous years, much of the 2010 hay was nutritionally halfway between straw and normal good hay. Protein was lower, acid detergent fibre and neutral detergent fibre levels much higher, and energy content lower. The impact of this lower quality showed up with many cows coming through a tough winter carrying less condition than in previous years.

If you expect this older feed to be the majority of this year’s feed supply it will require protein and energy supplementation to meet animal requirements. As a guideline, hay made in 2010 should not make up more than 25 to 30 per cent of the forage in the ration for cows in early to mid-pregnancy and 15 to 20 per cent in late pregnancy. Depending on quality, year-old hay may not be suitable to include in lactating cow or newly weaned calf rations.

To come up with a fair price on year-old hay:

Weigh the bales. Don’t use average weights from last fall.

Take a representative sample and test the feed. Does the quality meet your needs?

The price should reflect the 10 per cent loss in digestibility if it was stored outdoors. When cows cannot digest the hay efficiently, more nutrients end up in the manure.

Compare the price of year-old hay to greenfeed or straw. Pay according to quality, not forage type.

BarryYaremcioisabeefandforagespecialist withAlbertaAgricultureandRural Development.

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