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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Determining Proper Moisture 

Levels in Baled Hay

By Heather Smith Thomas, Salmon, ID

 

August 2009 Issue

         Plants that are cut and baled for hay tend to lose some of their vitamins and protein if they become too mature or dry. The challenge in making hay is to cut it at the proper stage of maturity (while plants are still green enough to retain most of their food value) and bale it at the proper stage of dryness.

         The trick is to retain as much of the nutrient value as possible, without having so much moisture in the plants that the hay will mold and spoil (or heat up so much after baling that it triggers spontaneous combustion and burns up a haystack).

         There can be quite a variation in “safe” or “desirable” hay moisture, depending on conditions. It’s really difficult to make specific recommendations, since a specific figure might be too dry in some situations and too wet in others.

It depends in part upon:

• The type of hay —alfalfa or grass, and the type of grass

• The maturity of the hay when cut

• The dryness of the hay when baled

• Whether the bales are small or large (large round bales, large square bales, etc.)

• Weather conditions (air moisture, ground moisture)

• Whether hay is baled soon after being cut or several days late

         The traditional rule-of-thumb is to bale hay between 8% and 15% moisture. But in some situations, 8% to 15% moisture is much too dry and the leaf quality will be lost. Leaves will shatter when the hay is baled, and much of the leaf material will not end up in the bale (especially in small bales) — you’ll end up with stemmy hay and few leaves.

         Whether grass or alfalfa, the leaves contain most of the protein and nutrition, so if the leaves are lost, the hay quality will be very low. If hay is dry and the leaves shatter when baled, they will generally be lost, unless the hay is baled by one of the newer types of large balers designed for these conditions (making big square bales), and even then, hay will be crumbly and dusty.

         Some types of grass hay — in dry weather conditions or on dry ground — will be much too dry when baled as small bales using the 8% to 15% moisture as a guide. Some of this grass hay produces the best quality bales when baled at 24% to 30% moisture. This figure refers to external moisture, not stem moisture (the plant should have little or no stem moisture) and only applies to small bales.

         At the other extreme, when using large bales with some types of hay, you have to be very careful baling anything over 15% moisture; even 18% may be much too high. The mass per square inch is so much greater in the big bales, and also there is less surface area for continued drying.

         A key factor in when to bale hay is stem moisture, according to Michael Thomas, a rancher near Salmon, Idaho who also does custom hay harvesting.

         “If stem moisture in a certain cutting is low, then 24% overall moisture in the hay is not a problem when making small bales. For large round bales or big square bales, the percent must be much lower,” he says.

         If stem moisture is high, a professional hay producer will halt the baling when moisture content gets up to 18%, or even less for big bales. To make GOOD hay, you must have enough moisture to keep all the leaves intact. Too dry, and they shatter and fall off during the baling process. Too wet, and hay will heat and mold.

         On the other hand, if the hay is dry and you are two days late getting it baled (two days past optimum time for baling it), you may be safe at 24% stem moisture. In this situation, 13% is much too dry, and you must bale it at night with some dew on it to keep from losing the leaves or being dusty.

         “This will make better hay—baling it with a bit of moisture on it, either from dew or from a very light rain shower. This will bind the dust to the leaves and stems, so there is no dustiness to be breathed by the animal eating the hay, yet won’t make it wet enough to mold,” says Thomas.

         There is a difference between mold dust (mold spores that become airborne when you break open a bale) due to the hay being too “green” or wet when baled and other types of dust. Hay that was baled too dry will be dusty just because of leaf shattering, with tiny leaf particles floating about in the air when the bale is opened. Road dust often drifts out over a hayfield, if hay is grown near a dirt or gravel road. The plants will be dusty even before they are cut.

“To ensure that the hay won’t be too dusty (especially for horses), it must be baled with a little moisture on it to settle and bind the dust to the hay,” he explains.

         For good quality hay, proper moisture level is very crucial. “To reduce the chance of heating and molding, regardless of hay type (grass or alfalfa) allow the hay to dry in the windrow slightly longer (to have less stem moisture) than you would for cow hay.

         “Then make sure it is baled with more external moisture, such as dew. External moisture will keep the leaves together and prevent shattering and leaf loss, give the hay a softer, more palatable texture, and bond any naturally occurring dust (such as road dust, pollen, plant particles—as opposed to mold dust) to the hay,” he explains.

         “One way to check stem moisture if you don’t have a moisture meter is to reach under the windrow, to the hay near the ground, and remove a handful of hay to test. This should be a small amount, such as a swatch a couple inches in diameter, that you can easily hold between your two hands to twist (one hand going one direction and the other hand going the opposite direction) back and forth. If the hay stems do not break after a few turns or twists, it is not dry enough,” says Thomas. Experience is the best teacher in getting a “feel” for how dry the stems should be.

         Each batch of hay must be evaluated individually. Breaking open some bales (after they’ve been baled a few days) to check can often tell you more about quality of the hay (and whether it was baled too dry or wet) than measuring moisture content with a moisture meter. Going “by the numbers” can be very misleading, both for evaluating hay quality and for assessing fire danger.

         A professional hay producer is often the best judge of proper hay moisture in any given crop of hay, since his livelihood depends on making top quality, mold-free hay (hay that will not heat enough to lower the nutritional quality, and hence it will definitely not heat enough to be a fire danger).

         He generally uses a moisture meter, and weighs the numbers against the various conditions that can affect the hay; he knows exactly what the moisture content is at baling, and is familiar with all the variables that can affect whether that moisture content is too high or too low for that particular cutting of hay.

        In some climates it can be hard to get the bottom of the windrow dry enough to bale, even though the top has already become too dry. Often the hay must be turned in order to get more uniform drying.

        When you break open a few bales to check them, you will be able to tell whether they are heating or have heated earlier. Hay that heated earlier, even though it has now cooled down, will be moldy, discolored or stuck together. Stuck-together hay may be “carmelized” (the high heat broke down some of the starch into sugars and the hay is brown and sweet-smelling), or “tobaccoed” (brown and musty from heat damage).

         Hay moisture measurement alone will not tell you as much as checking some of the bales. As previously mentioned, 8% to 15% moisture content in some types of hay will be much too low (resulting in dry, poor quality hay with low nutritional values) while in other situations may be just right.

         In other cases, 22% to 24% moisture may be too high, resulting in heat and fermentation, yet that amount of moisture at baling may be perfect under other conditions, to keep the hay from being too dry and losing all its leaves.

         The best test is to open a few bales and check the hay. If it smells good, stems are pliable, the leaves are plentiful and intact, and it’s not moldy, musty or heating (or stuck together from earlier heating), then the moisture content is fine, whatever percent it may be.

Heather Smith Thomas is the author of numerous articles and 20 books. Her most recent book is the Cattle Health Handbook, and it is a companion volume to her Essential Guide to Calving. Heather and her husband ranch near Salmon, Idaho .

 

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Copyright 2009 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

 

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