Few things are as comforting as filling up your shed or barn with a nice load of horse hay. But once you've bought that satisfying stack of nutrients for your horse, you want to be sure you don't lose any of it to spoilage, animal contamination, or fire. There are several options in storing horse hay, but which works best for your ranch? Here are some suggestions for keeping your hay stored safely and conveniently, so that it stays as tasty and nutritious for your horse as possible.
To keep things focused, we'll assume that you're storing small, rectangular bales of hay. We'll save the issue of storing large square bales and round bales for another article (although many of the same principles apply).
The Enemies of Hay
Hay has a few natural enemies, but you can help fend them off by following some simple practices.
Moisture. For starters, check to make sure the hay you're buying has been properly cured. Open a bale or two and check inside. You don't want to feel moisture or heat in there. Moisture inside the bale can cause the hay to turn moldy and to ferment. And fermentation leads to heat buildup that might start a fire.
Some hay growers use electronic sensing devices that measure the moisture content using a probe, which can be inserted into windrows and bales. If you buy a lot of hay, and you're worried about the quality throughout a stack, a moisture tester can be used to sample bales without having to open them. Reliable testers are not cheap-typically around $200 and up-but the device could pay for itself in relatively short order, given the cost of a ton of high-quality hay.
Assuming your hay is well cured, your next challenge is to keep moisture from getting to it from the outside. If you're storing it under a roof, make sure it's not a leaky one (or at least place the hay well away from the leaks). If you're storing it outside, you'll want to cover it with a tarp.
Stack It Right
• Stack the bottom layer of bales on their sides, with the strings facing sideways instead of up. The uneven surface allows better air circulation and helps prevent mold from growing.
• Stack the second layer with the strings facing up, all pointing in the same direction. Then, stack the third layer perpendicular to the second layer-so if the second layer of bales are pointing north and south, the third layer of bales should point east and west. This will "lock" the stack in place and make it more stable.
• Be sure to leave some space between rows to promote airflow and allow moisture to escape.
• Allow at least 18 inches between your hay stack and the walls and ceiling, again to ensure proper airflow.
You should also consider what the hay is sitting on, because moisture can easily wick up from the bottom. If your hay is stacked on bare ground, you might consider putting down gravel or straw. That won't keep all the moisture out, but it will improve the air circulation underneath the hay and help minimize contact with damp surfaces. Another possibility is to stack your hay on wooden palettes. This keeps it out of direct contact with a wet floor and is great for promoting air circulation. The main drawback to palettes is that they also promote rodent circulation, giving them all sorts of places to hide, nest, and populate your barn. Which brings us to enemy number two.
Animals. Hay provides a haven for mice and rats, and they can contaminate it (and your grain, if they can get to it) with their urine, droppings and hair. While they're at it, they may also chew up your tack and possibly your electrical wiring. Raccoons, too, often set up housekeeping in barns and sheds, and they can fowl your hay with their feces, which may be loaded with intestinal parasites.
Recommendations start with keeping these critters out of your barn or hay storage facility to begin with, but for a lot of us, that's just not possible. We leave doors and windows open for light and air, or our hay shed is open-sided, or our barn has so many gaps, holes, and other rodent-enticing portals, we can't keep them all plastered and plugged.
A more likely scenario involves keeping the unwanted animal population under control through diligent housecleaning (for instance, making sure there's no spilled grain lying around to attract pests); by enlisting the help of cats, dogs, or even snakes; and/or through the use of traps or poisons.
Outdoor Storage Tips
• When you cover your hay with a tarp, make sure it's a good tarp-no holes or rips that might let moisture through. You might even look into buying a tarp that's made especially for covering hay. It's likely to be easier to work with and heavier-duty than an ordinary tarp, because it's designed for hay protection.
• Be picky about the location you choose for outdoor storage. It should be level and on high ground for best drainage, located close to where you feed, easily accessible by truck or tractor, and away from trees or buildings for optimum ventilation and sun exposure.
• Stack in a pyramid or have a "ridge bale" at the top to slope the sides of the stack and help with moisture runoff and air circulation.
• If you have to use more than one tarp to cover the stack, overlap them by three to five feet to prevent water from getting in where the tarps meet.
• Check the tarp regularly to make sure it's securely tucked or tied in place (flapping tarps will wear out quickly and can work their way loose to allow moisture to get in-not to mention creating a scary, annoying and potentially dangerous racket).
Fire. Hay is highly combustible, and that's one of the reasons it's advisable to store it away from your barn. Another reason is that it's dusty, which can create respiratory problems for some horses. If you can't store your hay in a separate location, the next best thing is to keep only small amounts of hay in the barn at one time, to help reduce the fire risk. But if you have no choice but to store all your hay in your barn, here are some general rules:
• Don't let anyone smoke (or light a match) in your barn.
• Don't store the hay near machinery (trucks, tractors, mowers) or an electrical/heat source.
• Don't store any fire accelerants anywhere near the hay (that would be things like gasoline, kerosene, oil, and aerosol cans).
• Make sure you buy only properly cured hay. Damp hay can produce bacteria in the center of the bale that heats things up enough to ignite the drier hay around it.
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