Mother Nature has not been very cooperative with farmers thus far this spring as rainfall has slowed field activities in many portions of the state. Corn and soybean planting are running behind schedule and it appears that first cutting hay harvest is going to lag behind schedule as well. Even with the relatively cool temperatures seen around the state, forage growth is advancing and in southern Ohio grasses can be commonly seen heading out.

Beef producers should recognize the value of forages in their operations. Beef animals are ruminants and are designed to function on adequate supplies of good quality forage. While all feedstuffs are relatively expensive these days, forages provide us our best opportunity for reasonable production costs. Forages are certainly more cost-effective when they are grazed when compared to mechanical harvest. However, Ohio winters necessitate a certain amount of harvested forages to maintain beef animals through challenging conditions.

I am sure that hay harvest will begin soon if the weather permits. Hay making can be a delicate art of balancing quality and quantity. We certainly want to achieve high yields from every acre we harvest, but the forage plant itself gives us the best indication as to when to harvest. When a forage plant exhibits a seed head or bloom, it is time to harvest. From the time the heads begin to emerge in the grasses, digestibility decreases approximately one-half percentage unit per day. In the case of legumes, digestibility is also reduced by one-third to one-half percentage unit each day following the development of flower buds.

There is a great deal of management that goes into a successful hay crop. Much thought goes into variety selection, the fertility program, weed control, and harvest. However, I would contend that we typically do a less than adequate job of planning on how we are going to store the hay crop.

The invention of the large round baler provided producers an efficient method to harvest large numbers of acres in a short time with a minimal amount of labor. Large round bales certainly reduced the amount of time required to feed hay in the winter. However, with this added convenience associated with large round bales, I believe we have seen a reduction in the amount of attention paid to storage of the crop.

A fact sheet from the University of Kentucky outlines the potential losses associated from a variety of storage systems. "Round Bale Hay Storage in Kentucky" can be found at the following link: The dry matter losses associated with a variety of storage systems listed in the publication area as follows: Conventional shed: 4-7%; Pole structure with plastic roof on pad : 4-7%; Reusable tarp on pad: 4-7%; Bale sleeve on ground: 4-7%; Plastic wrap on ground: 4-7%; Elevated stack on pad (rock plus filter fabric): 13-17%; Net wrap on ground: 15-25%; Stacked on ground: 25-35%.

Hay is simply too valuable of a commodity to waste as much of it as we do. I am sure that if we surveyed every hay producer, we would come up with a wide range of figures as to the cost of producing a ton of hay. The OSU Extension Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics recently published their 2013 hay enterprise budgets that showed the cost of production for grass hay at $67.86/ton and alfalfa hay at $92.96/ton. The beef producer that raises his own hay should at least value the hay at the cost of production. However, the value of hay sold in the market would more accurately represent the costs in a beef enterprise. Regardless of how you value the hay, can you afford 10-35% storage losses commonly seen with typical round bale hay storage? A 20 % loss of $100/ton hay adds up fairly quickly.

The amount you can invest in your hay storage systems will certainly depend on the amount and type of hay that is being stored. The larger the amount of hay being stored and the more valuable the hay, the more you can justify spending to reduce storage losses. Aside from constructing buildings for hay storage, there are some key points to remember to help reduce storage losses. Consider the following:

1. Hay/soil contact is typically the primary source of losses associated with hay stored outdoors. Cover your storage area with rocks 1-3 inches in diameter piled 4-8 inches deep. Using geotextile cloth below the rocks will increase the life of the pad.

2. If placing bales on the ground cannot be avoided, make sure a well-drained area is selected.

3. Hay should be stored in an open area that can receive maximum sunlight. Hay should never be stored under trees. It is also preferable to orient bale rows to run north and south to allow for maximum daily sun exposure.

4. Bales should be placed so the sides of the bales do not touch. Allow at least three feet of space between rows to allow for air circulation. An exception to this would be if you are stacking bales in a pyramid fashion for covering with a tarp or other material.

5. The flat ends of bales should be firmly butted against one another as this can protect the ends almost as well as if they were one continuous bale.

The USDA Crop Production Report that was released on May 10, 2013 also provides some compelling information that should motivate producers to save more of their hay crop. The report stated that all hay stored on U.S. farms as of May 1, 2013 was down 34% from a year ago and is the lowest May 1 stocks level on record. Record-low May 1 hay stocks levels were established in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The bottom line is that producers need to do a better job of preserving hay in order to insure adequate supplies of quality feeds for our herds and help improve profitability. I suspect the days of producing or purchasing "cheap" hay are a thing of the past for the foreseeable future. Hay is a valuable commodity and it is about time that we treat it like one.

Source: John F. Grimes, Ohio State University Extension Beef Coordinator