Are You Losing Hay Every Harvest?

Losing some of your hay can greatly impact your harvest's profitability. Mowing your crop estimates 2% to 3% loss, and other parts of harvesting — like raking, baling and storage — can yield losses as much as 21%. So, protecting your hay harvest is critical.

Here, you'll learn eight tips on reducing harvest loss every year, along with the best tools and resources to benefit your harvest.

8 Hay Harvest Tips to Reduce Loss

Reduce the chances of losing hay during harvest with these tips:

1. Grow in the Right Conditions

Profitable hay requires the right growing conditions. Growing conditions should support hay growth that:

  • Is full of leaves, the most nutritionally dense portion of hay.
  • Contains no coarse stems.
  • Has little dust, mildew or mold.
  • Smells sweet.
  • Looks bright green.

Ideal growing conditions are locations that are sunny and have low humidity. In the U.S., some states that are optimal for hay harvesting are Texas, California, Kansas and Missouri. More specifically, factors that influence good hay growth include:

  • High solar radiation
  • High temperature
  • Mild wind velocity
  • Low humidity
  • Low soil moisture

These factors make it easier for hay to dry, an essential step in harvesting. The faster the grass can dry, the better. Rapid drying minimizes hay loss and maximizes nutritional value.

Locations with heavy rainfall aren't ideal for growing hay because the moisture affects its dryness and nutrient levels. Heavy rainfall can strip away carbohydrates, B vitamins and soluble minerals and potentially bleach the crop. Rain may also cause mold and mildew growth and fermentation. These results are more likely in shorter, intense rainfalls than longer, low-intensity ones.

Bleaching can occur in long-term sun exposure, too, but has much less of an impact than rain. Although bleached, bales can still be of good quality if the interior is light green.

2. Wait Until Your Hay Is Fully Mature

Practice patience when determining the right time to cut your hay. Cut crops when they're mature for more established and nutritious tissue structure than immature alfalfa. Alfalfa that hasn't reached maturity has a weaker diameter and cuticle, causing it to dry out too fast. When alfalfa dries too quickly, it becomes coarse, leading to higher post-cutting losses.

Keep in mind that, as hay matures, it gradually drops in nutrients and digestibility. So, it's critical to time your hay harvest right.

How Do You Know When Hay Is Ready to Cut?

Your goal is to find the "just right" point, where your hay is neither too mature nor too immature. This point occurs between the boot stage, when seed heads start appearing, to the early anthesis stage, when grass grows an additional foot from the boot stage. Usually, your first cutting occurs in the spring when the grass reaches 12 to 16 inches tall.

What Month Is Hay First Cut?

Typically, your first cut occurs during mid to late May, which can change with your location. Your first cut depends on the maturity of your grass, which varies with your soil and grass growth rate. Expect to cut during May, but practice patience and wait until your hay fully matures.

3. Monitor Hay Moisture Content

Hay becomes coarse when too dry, losing its leaves and breaking easier than moist, nutritious hay. If the grass is too moist, the added moisture strips away nutrients and increases hay harvest loss. Monitoring your hay's moisture content is important to ensure your harvest is healthy and profitable.

You can monitor your hay's moisture content by purchasing a moisture tester. Some moisture testers require you to take whole samples of your harvest, while others need you to probe the diameter or ends.

When reading, take multiple samples or probes and average the readings for the most accurate recording. Also, take samples or probes from different parts of your field, accounting for field variation.

Why It Can Be Dangerous to Bale Wet Hay

Baling wet hay is dangerous as it can spontaneously combust. As ironic as it sounds, wet hay is more likely to catch on fire than dry hay. A moisture content of 15% or higher causes hay to heat as plant material diffuses oxygen during respiration and fungi and bacteria break down the complex carbohydrates.

When tightly packed, hay can be used as insulation, meaning it does not ventilate well. The more hay there is, the more heat overpowers natural cooling agents.

A hay bale's internal temperature can hit 130-175 degrees Fahrenheit, initiating an exothermic chemical reaction and causing the wet hay to heat even further. If it reaches 448-527 degrees Fahrenheit, the bale can ignite, causing combustion.

To prevent this from happening, be sure to check your hay regularly. Your hay may be heating up if you notice a consistent musty odor. Contact your local fire department — even if it is only a potential problem — to ensure your home, harvest and surrounding areas stay safe.

4. Cut Hay During the Evening

Leaves accumulate sugars and other nutrients during the day to feed off those nutrients during the nighttime. Because of this natural rhythm, nutrient concentration is the highest during the evening and lowest in the morning.

Some farmers falsely believe it's best to cut hay in the morning. That's because moisture content reads higher in the morning due to dew moisture, and hay has the remainder of the day to dry under the sun. But cutting alfalfa in the morning limits its nutritional value and risks bleaching, resulting in higher leaf loss.

Cutting hay in the evening gives your grass the night to dry and allows you to use tedding and raking manipulations to speed drying the following morning. You get the most nutritious harvest without risking uneven or over-drying.

5. Maintain a Wide Swath

Maintaining a wide swath creates a nicely spread windrow. If it's not wide enough, the hay leaves in your windrow pack on top of each other. The hay leaves on top dry faster than the ones on the bottom, resulting in an unevenly dry harvest that's more prone to harvest loss.

A wider swath exposes more leaves to air and sunshine. Even exposure creates a faster drying process, limiting the timeframe for hay to bleach and lose its nutrients or value.

6. Use Tedding and Raking Manipulations

Better distribute the hay in your windrow by tedding and raking. You can find tedders and rakers at your local farming equipment dealer. Compared to the cost of harvest loss, tedders and rakes are good long-term investments that make your harvest more profitable.

Tedders have three functions:

  • Mix the hay: Mixing the hay brings the lower green layers to the top of the windrow, promoting equal time to dry under the sun.
  • Spread the hay: Spreading the hay evenly disperses your windrow, widening the surface area for all of your crop to dry.
  • Fluff the hay: Fluffing the hay separates anything stuck together and ensures an even distribution of airflow.

The morning after your evening cut is the ideal time to ted your field. Your hay then has time to rest during its 12-hour respiration period. Cutting your hay in the morning exposes your harvest to prolonged sun exposure, which the grass doesn't need during its respiration period. By morning, your hay is ready to slowly release its moisture under the sun, requiring a gentle mix, spread and fluff to evenly and quickly dry.

Around one to two days after you ted, your windrows are ready for raking. Tedders disperse your windrows, making it hard — or nearly impossible — for your baler to properly do its function. Raking fluffs the hay in your windrow, forming a straight line that makes baling easier.

7. Bale at the Right Moisture Content

Hay baled at a moisture content higher than 20% is prone to mold growth and bacterial degradation, negatively affecting livestock that consumes the hay — and the profit. High moisture content can even make bales catch fire or combust in storage.

Studies indicate you should harvest square or rectangular bales at 20% moisture and large round bales at 18% moisture.

Hay baled between 15% and 20% moisture will naturally elevate in temperature over the following few weeks. This process is called "sweating" and is caused by plant respiration and microbial activity.

In the six weeks following bailing, monitor temperature changes twice a day using a thermometer. Take multiple recordings of the inside of the bales for the most accurate readings. If your harvest's internal temperature stays below 130 degrees Fahrenheit, it shouldn't lose many nutrients.

Be cautious if your internal temperature reading is 175 degrees Fahrenheit as combustion and fire may occur. Generally, if your harvest were to combust, it would happen 30 to 35 days after baling. Larger round bales are more prone to combustion than square or rectangular ones because they're more tightly packed.

How Many Times Can You Harvest Hay in a Year?

Depending on your soil and grass growth rate, you can harvest hay two or three times a year. In some places, you can even stretch for a fourth crop, but the harvest will be less fruitful.

Your last harvest depends on your state's last frost date. For many states, you have the green light to harvest through the first week of September. Remember to leave enough time in the season for your soil to replenish its nutrients before next year's harvest.

How Long Does a Hay Field Last?

Hayfields are excellent at retaining moisture, reducing erosion and building soil by themselves. Properly managed hayfields can last five to six years, depending on the type of harvest you grow. Replenish your fields once every five to six years to help keep nutrients in the topsoil for your hay to absorb.

8. Store Your Hay Properly

Factors that affect storage losses are moisture content, storage conditions and weather conditions. Proper hay storage involves:

  • Protecting bales from the elements, like rain or sun exposure
  • Elevating bales from the ground
  • Ensuring bales are properly ventilated
  • Monitoring bales for temperature rises

You can store hay bales inside or outside. Both have their pros and cons. Bales stored in enclosed barns or pole barns are protected from the elements but are at a higher risk of overheating.

Outside, bales benefit from sun exposure to maintain preferable moisture levels. But they're also subjected to weather conditions, like rain. This risks "weathering," where bales develop a wet, discolored and moldy layer on the exterior and under layers. Storing bales outside can cost 8 inches of outer layer loss.

No matter the location, store your bales in a well-ventilated area. Most storage losses are a result of direct contact with moist soil. Studies show that you can reduce storage loss by up to 15% by protecting your hay from moist soil. Place bales on gravel, pallets or tires. Avoid placing your bales on plastic because the material can build up moisture and trap rainwater.

When storing your hay outside, arrange rows north to south so the sun evenly hits and dries your bales. Protect your harvest from the rain by placing a tarp over a triangular-shaped haystack.

How to Store Hay Under a Tarp

Storing hay under a plastic tarp is one of the best options for reducing storage losses. Covering hay with a tarp can also contribute to:

  • Lowered cost investment: Plastic tarps are much more inexpensive than storage buildings and are easy to find at local stores.
  • Enhanced control: Tarps can be pulled back and dried in the sun as the bales dry on their outer layer. This allows extra control over hay curing after wet periods.
  • Increased safety: Because wet hay is more likely to combust, many farmers forego storing hay in barns. In the event of combustion, storing hay under a tarp can make it more secure and prevent fire from spreading.

You can follow the steps below to store your hay under a tarp and begin gaining these benefits.

  1. Create a well-drained base: Keep the hay well-ventilated by creating a base that allows airflow. Many farmers use wooden pallets.
  2. Stack hay: Stack your hay bales in a pyramid or cone shape so water can run off efficiently.
  3. Cover and secure tarps: Drape your tarp over the top of your hay and ensure it is well secured, as high winds can shred them. You can use bungee cords, trampoline springs or other flexible straps to allow hay shifting.

How Do You Keep Hay From Molding Using Preservatives?

Some farmers find it beneficial to use preservatives to prevent their high-moisture hay from molding. Historically, farmers used salt, but the amount of salt required was costly. And the salt lowered the harvest's palatability, affecting profit.

Now, farmers use organic acids, most commonly propionic-acetic or pure propionic acid solutions. Some use lactic acid-forming bacteria, but that method isn't as effective.

Propionic acid solutions are applied during the baling process. They shorten curing time, reducing the risk of rain or sun damage. In storage, propionic acid reduces the chances of mold and mildew in high-moisture hay, therefore reducing storage loss.

But propionic acid makes bales heavier, requiring additional machinery to handle the bales. Avoid making contact with the preservative and machinery, as the acid will rust and deteriorate equipment. Propionic acid is also costly, which may influence your decision to use preservatives.

Reduce Hay Harvest Loss — Use the Right Equipment From Pequea

Reduce Hay Harvest Loss — Use the Right Equipment From Pequea

Low-quality equipment may play a role in your harvest hay loss. Pequea is a farm equipment manufacturer based in the U.S. We put great importance on talking with farmers, striving to find solutions to their problems — like harvest loss. Pequea makes farming easier and more efficient by supplying the right machinery equipment.

For your hay harvest, we recommend:

Pequea Hay Tedders

Tedders play a critical part in the hay-drying process. They spread and fluff your windrow for optimal drying conditions. At Pequea, we offer three series of tedders:

  • TurboTedders™: Standing apart from others, TurboTedders™ have premium features — like heavy duty round-tube arms, carbo-austempered finger joints, asymmetrical tine configuration and an industry leading 5 year gearbox warranty.
  • Tedder X-Series:The Tedder X-Series is similar to our TurboTedders™ but priced to be easy on the wallet.
  • Fluffer Tedder: The Fluffer Tedder is a alternative to the rotary tedders, generally better suited for lighter, drier crops or situations where the hay has already been partially dried.

Pequea Hay Rake Equipment

After you ted, and the hay is dry, you're ready to rake. Ideally, you want a rake that places hay into windrows with minimal leaf breakage. For this, a  rotary hay rakes would be the best choice. Learn more about what rotary rake options Pequea offers by visiting our hay rake product page.

Pequea Bale Wrappers

When it comes to baling, you want a baler that gives you the most control. Pequea offers the Proliner bale wrapper, that wraps bales with precision to minimize hay loss. Proliner is efficient, too, wrapping up to 100 bales per hour!

Find a Pequea Dealer Near You Today

Learn more about these and other products by contacting a Pequea dealer near you. We serve farmers in many states throughout the U.S., and we look forward to serving you.