How your hay looks heading into winter depends on two things — where you farm, and how badly you were hit by the never-ending rains this summer.
If you’re on the Eastern Slopes in southern Alberta where the weather was good, you’re probably in luck. But heading farther east, conditions this summer were dry and hay yields have been small.
The Calgary-Edmonton corridor mostly had good hay yields, but after being hammered by rain every few days, farmers in central Alberta either cut it early, turned it three or four times, and then baled it black, or they waited and only took their first cut of hay prior to snow arriving. Either way, the quality is generally poor — as poor as straw, in some cases.
Just north of Edmonton, some areas had more than 20 inches of rain, and for those farmers, the fields were so soft that they couldn’t even get in to cut hay. The north Peace had the opposite problem, starting off dry, but later-season moisture meant they’re seeing average yields there.
It all means cattle feeders will need to make the most of the hay they have.
“I think a lot of people are thinking about what happened last year,” said provincial beef forage specialist Barry Yaremcio.
“There were a lot of areas of the province that were short of feed last year, and that’s in the back of their heads. They want to make sure they have enough feed and that they’re efficient in how they’re using that feed.
“Guys were paying 10 to 12 cents a pound for hay last year. They don’t want to pay that again, so they’re watching their pocketbooks.”
But that can be tricky, because a few things happen when hay is stored over the winter, he added. First, bales lose weight — anywhere between 100 to 300 pounds over the course of a winter. Some of that is lost to moisture evaporation, but a bigger part of the loss is soluble carbohydrates and protein.
“In effect, what’s happening is the bales get lighter and the quality goes down,” said Yaremcio.
As the quality goes down, the digestibility of the feed drops, decreasing voluntary feed intake. And finally, as the bale spoils, the less usable it becomes to the animal.
“So not only is there a loss of quality, loss of digestibility, and loss of voluntary intake, there’s also feed wastage — the inability of the animal to use as much of that feed,” he said.
“But by changing your storage method, you could be saving feed by having less spoilage, and that’s huge.”
Proper bale storage
Your first mistake is storing beside a tree line, said Yaremcio.
“That way, the snow stays with the bales, and it takes longer for the snow to melt in the spring,” he said. “And during that melting process, there’s water migrating into the bales, causing more damage.”
Ideally, bales should be stored in higher parts of the field or the yard, rather than in low-lying areas. But wherever you choose to store them, try to cut the grass short so it doesn’t collect snow.
How you stack your bales matters too. The worst way to stack them is pyramid style, as any moisture will trickle down from the top bale to the bottom bales and cause spoilage any place the bales are touching.
The mushroom stack — with one bale upright on the ground and another placed horizontally across its top — is better, as it takes up less space in the yard and the top bale typically stays in good condition. But the bottom bale ends up with moisture both from the ground it’s resting on and from the top bale, so “it’s always going to be lower quality,” said Yaremcio.
If you have to store your bales outside, the best way to do it is to align the bales in the direction of the prevailing wind.
“Say your prevailing winds are out of the northwest. You want to stack the bales in a row northwest to southeast,” said Yaremcio. “You’ll also want to leave a couple of feet between the rows and about six inches between the bales so that they don’t touch. Wherever those bales touch is where you’re going to get the spoilage.”
Covering your bales will also help. Tarps are an easy, inexpensive option, but they shouldn’t be secured too tightly. Moisture can condense under the tarp, and if there’s nowhere for it to go, “you’re going to have spoilage no different than having the bales outside.”
“Closing the ends off is great for making it look neat and pretty, but somehow, you have to leave the ends open so that you still have space between the bale and the tarp for the wind to get in there and carry the moisture away,” said Yaremcio, adding that tarps are prone to tearing, so they might only last a year or two.
Some farmers switched to plastic wrap this year — either as individual bales in the field or long ‘snakes’ of several bales wrapped together.
“If you have dry hay and you’re in a high-moisture area, that works well. It keeps the moisture off them, as long as the integrity of the plastic is maintained.”
But putting the hay up as a silage bale (or baling it at between 30 to 55 per cent moisture and then wrapping it) could increase the quality of the hay by up to 15 per cent and the yield as much as 10 per cent. In that case, you’ll need to seal the ends of the rows well, said Yaremcio.
“Just putting a straw bale on the end to act as a plug won’t work — you’re still getting oxygen into that row, and you’re going to get spoilage,” he said. “You have to put a plastic cover in there to seal it. It’s no different than a silage pit.”
But the best way to store bales is under a bale shed.
“A lot of guys like to have 50 per cent of their hay supply left over from one year to the next to protect themselves against a drought,” said Yaremcio.
“If you leave those bales outside and they start to deteriorate, you’re losing them, no matter which way you look at it. If you keep them under a shed, they’re going to be just as good this year as they were three years ago.”
Farmers might balk at the cost of a hay shed, but one study found that it would take approximately 14 years to pay off a shed with hay priced at three cents a pound.
“If you went to a hay price that’s more common today — that six- to seven-cents-a-pound range — it would only take you four years to pay for the cost of the building,” said Yaremcio. “It’s something to look at.”
Yaremcio looks at it as an ‘opportunity cost.’
“If I’ve got bales that are outside and they don’t have any protection, what opportunities am I losing in the long run? Am I going to have to cut an extra 50 acres of greenfeed to make sure I’ve got enough feed supply?” he said.
That calculation is even more vital in a variable year like this one, where farmers will need to do what they can to preserve what little quality and yield they have, and then boost their rations to get the best performance they can out of their animals.
“There’s going to be a lot of poor-quality hay this year — low in protein, low in energy,” said Yaremcio.
“Just because the hay looks green doesn’t mean anything. It might be overmature and just as poor quality as the stuff that was cut early, got rained on, and baled black.
“So feed testing is going to be critical this year, and supplementation with grain, protein, and different types of minerals is definitely going to be a need this winter.”