Gathering and storing hay bales for winter…how hard can it be?
When winters can endure for 6 months or more, like where we live, making sure we have enough of the right type and amount of feed for all our animals is crucial.
Identifying, gathering, and properly storing hay isn’t always a simple and straightforward process. Especially when it’s your first winter.
Keep reading to learn the terminology and things to consider when finding the right hay for your homestead and animals.
How does this grow sovereignty?
Not only is raising our own food a step in the right direction, but being able to grow our food’s feed or to source healthy feed properly helps us gain more control over everyone’s health on our homestead.
Before you start this process, acquaint yourself with the following terms to better aid your search process. It’ll be easier to identify and negotiate for hay if you can speak the language.
Hay and straw are packaged in bales that are square, rectangular, or cylindrical.
Cutting down grass, legume, mixed (grass and legume), cereal grain, etc. into windrows for baling.
Gathering up the cut material with heavy machinery into tidy packages secured with baling twine.
No matter the type or shape of a bale, the measurement and pricing always comes down to weight. A ton is equal to 2000lb.
Dried grass, legume, mixed (grass and legume), cereal grain, etc. for feeding animals
The dried waste product of wheat (typically stems) for animal bedding and great for insulating winter shelters.
round, rectangle, square
Bales come in a few different shapes. Pricing can be dependent on these shapes but you should choose which shape you can easily transport and use for your homestead. Rounds can be unrolled using machinery on winter pastures. Smaller square bales can more easily fit in a Y feeder and are easier to handle by yourself.
horse hay/cow hay/goat hay
Animals have preferences just like humans. Higher protein hay (legume) will be great for dairy and lactating animals and harsh winter days due to the extra protein and calories for heat production. The leaves, in particular, contain the goodies animals love so you may find your animals eating last or entirely wasting stemmy hay.
Did you know?
Donkeys eat straw! These cute critters fare better on a straw diet. Grass and legumes provide an overabundance of calories resulting in unhealthy fat growth.
1st, 2nd, 3rd cuttings
Cuttings at different growth stages of alfalfa will provide different textures, stemmy and leafiness, and protein levels. Hobby Farms sums it up best:
“First-cut alfalfa can be stemmy, but only if it is too mature when harvested. However, weeds tend to appear in first-cut alfalfa hay. Second-cut alfalfa usually has a higher stem-to-leaf ratio but is lower in crude protein—about 16 percent on average. Third-cut alfalfa typically has a higher leaf-to-stem ratio because of slower growth during the cool part of the season. If buying grass hay, maturity at harvest will also make a difference in its nutrient quality.
Early bloom alfalfa (cut before the blossoms open) has about 18 percent crude protein, compared with 9.8 percent for early bloom timothy (before seed heads fill), 11.4 percent for early bloom orchard grass, and lower levels for most other grasses. Alfalfa cut at full bloom drops to 15.5 percent crude protein, compared to 6.9 percent for late bloom timothy and 7.6 percent for late bloom orchard grass. Thus legume hay, cut early, is more apt to meet the protein and mineral needs of young growing, pregnant or lactating animals than will many of the grass hays.”Hobby Farms
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Now that you understand some terminology, start the search! But where do you begin?
The best place is to start with your neighbors. Are they selling hay? Or where are they purchasing their hay?
Facebook Marketplace and local Facebook groups also provide a fantastic platform for finding and comparing the prices on available winter hay. It’s always fun come summer time to see the ads hitting FB to compare prices and find the best deal.
A tried and true source is Craigslist. Similar to Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist will provide the ability to peruse different ads and compare distance to pickup and prices.
And funnily enough, you might come across signs on the side of the road advertising hay. Never miss an opportunity to expand your network of hay sources for future redundancies. Stop by and inquire about what they’re selling.
If you have some acreage, you can hay your own fields or hire someone to hay them for you.
Local auctions will also sell bales of hay in squares, rectangles, or rounds depending on availability. So keep a lookout for a good deal!
Don’t go with the first option you find unless you know it’s an absolutely killer deal. Be prepared to let that ton of hay bales at the auction go if the combined price, sales tax, and buyer’s premium are over budget. There will be more options!
The first consideration for cost will be if irrigation and rain have been abundant or if there’s been a drought. Less water means more expensive hay to buy but cheaper livestock purchases.
Smaller bales tend to be more expensive because of the extra work to handle them, but they are the easiest for one person to carry without heavy machinery.
Legume and mixes (grass and legume) are more expensive than straight grass hay but also provide more calories and protein.
If you need bales delivered to you because you don’t have machinery to move them, a fee will typically be tacked on. The offset is you don’t have to purchase expensive equipment unless you can justify the purchase for other projects throughout the year.
things to consider before purchasing and moving hay
Grass hay bales will weigh less than legume bales even with the same bale measurements. Keep this in mind if you’re moving them by hand.
have the bales been rained on?
If the bales were rained on and baled wet, you may end up with wasted, rotten hay that no animal should eat. This leaves you at the mercy of buying whatever is for sale under duress in winter.
Which cutting will your particular animal need? Stemmy or leafy? Peak protein or does it not matter?
How much hay will you need to keep your animals comfortable throughout winter? Typically you can calculate this based on the weight of your animal, the days of winter expected, and the number of animals you will have. Special considerations for dairy and lactating animals are needed.
For example, our goats eat 3-4% of their total bodyweight daily. We prefer to slightly overestimate our needs for a safety buffer. We take the expected max weight of each animal, multiply it by 4-5% and then multiply by roughly 6 months (186 days). We expect to have kids, lambs, kits, etc. so the overestimation covers our lactating mothers.
loading and moving equipment
If you don’t have a large trailer or a loader to transport large bales, then consider asking for delivery which will more than likely include a fee. It’s worth having it delivered if you’ve no use for large machinery outside of gathering winter hay. The back of a pickup truck also works even if you need to make multiple trips. Keep it simple!
all hands on deck
If you’re gathering small bales, make sure you have many hands on deck to help you move them. It’s no joke moving and stacking hundreds of 60lb+ bales in a day.
All animals waste hay to some extent (albeit decomposing hay in the ground is great for the soil) so preserving as much as possible to lower feed costs is beneficial. Hay nets for loose hay are great and provide a bit of entertainment. Y feeders are great if your bales are still secured with baling twine. If loose hay is put in Y feeders, we find that the wind blows it away and wastes more than the goats do!
protect your skin
Wear tough leather gloves when moving bales by hand as the baling twine is coarse and will tear skin. Don’t buck hay in shorts either (ask me how I know!) as the hay will scratch and stab. You’ll probably use your legs to bump up bales onto a trailer or into storage so any form of barrier is preferred. I love these Duluth Trading Company pants for outdoor work. Same goes for short sleeves, you may want to wear a long sleeve shirt to protect your forearms from scratches.
Wool and fleece clothing will attract and hold onto hay and straw. I still wear them for their benefits in warm and cold weather, but I’ve resigned myself to the task of pulling hay before washing them.
how to efficiently store hay
Protect the hay from the elements. There’s nothing worse than getting great hay for winter and having it rained or snowed on resulting in rot and waste. Protection doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be a rugged tarp secured against the wind or a 3 sided enclosure open to the southern sun.
To further protect bales, stack them on top of wood pallets to keep them off the ground. Pallets can be found for free on FB marketplace or from local hardware stores. It’s worth keeping quite a few on hand for random projects.
Protect the hay from the animals. Your storage area is an open buffet for any animals (yours and wildlife) that can find it. Block of the area with something as simple as pallets to prevent animals from gorging on the costlier legume mix bales. Your animals will thank you when they get it in the coldest months of the year.
Make sure the bales are convenient to grab. Don’t store your hay 500ft from where you’ll feed animals or in an area where it’s difficult to get machinery in to move it. Do you want to lug a 60lb+ bale far in a winter storm?
In the same line of thought, don’t stack the bales too high. While you’re be able to efficiently store more with multiple rows, make sure the top row is easy to safely pull down. Storing up to 5-6 rows of bales is great way to start unless you have machinery that can move them down for you. Just make sure your shortest person on the homestead can reach the top bale.
To prevent toppling, crisscross each new row. Change the direction the bale is sitting each row so that there is some counterpressure on each bale preventing wobbly columns.
Procuring enough winter hay for your animals doesn’t have to be stressful or time-consuming but it does take some work to find the right hay for your homestead.
If all else fails, ask for help!
Great neighbors and local farmers and ranchers will be more than willing to help you through this process.
But do a bit of legwork before asking so that the process is quicker and more efficient.
Do you have tips for storing hay for the winter?
We would love to see your tips and tricks to share with others. Drop a comment below!
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Here are the links to products I’ve personally used and mentioned in this post.
Duluth Trading Company fire hose flex shift pants
These are my go to work pants and I love the copper color. They completely protected my legs from scratchy and stabby hay bales.