Savvy Feed Storage

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How Smart Storage Options Can Help Maintain Feed Quality

Like many areas across the country, Nebraska has seen a vast range of rainfall from the northwest to the southeast in 2021. Feed prices are spanning a wide berth, giving producers a lot to think about in terms of buying, selling and storing feedstuffs. While opinions about storage for all varieties of feed vary, there are some tips and techniques many folks utilize.

When it comes to large round bales, Steve Niemeyer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator, says there isn’t a universal “right way” to store hay. He does, however, say producers should consider three factors to help determine the best storage option for their operation.

First, he says, do the math. “Look at hay quality, or value – there’s a big dollar difference in a 25 percent loss on $120-per-ton hay versus $40-per-ton hay,” he points out. “The higher the quality, the more you’ll save putting it under storage.”

For many producers, harvested forage is one of the largest feed costs affecting cash flow.

Next, Niemeyer suggests evaluating the likelihood of spoilage, or weathering, in the given climate. “Spoilage is the result of moisture getting into bales and temperature accelerating bacterial breakdown of the cellulose,” he explains. “Warmer temperatures combined with moisture increase bale deterioration.”

Moisture can get into bales via rainfall, snowmelt or humidity. The tops of bales absorb moisture from rain and snowmelt, while the bottoms wick moisture from the ground.

Finally, Niemeyer says to consider the length of time bales will be stored. “First-cutting forages are more susceptible [to weathering] than hay harvested in the fall, depending on when it’s fed,” he explains.

The longer hay is stored, the more quality and quantity losses can be expected. “Once you’ve considered your elements, choose a storage method that best fits your needs.”

Successful storage techniques start in the field by making a dense bale at 15 to 20 percent moisture because it sheds more precipitation, sags less and has less surface area to absorb moisture. Further, using net wrap instead of twine to create a smooth surface helps bales resist weathering, deters insects and rodents, and helps maintain bale shape.

According to the Kansas State University Forage Fact Publication Series “Storing Large Round Bales Outside,” storing big round bales in a barn is the most effective means of maintaining quality and reducing waste from weathering and spoilage.

For many ranchers, however, barn-storing isn’t practical or feasible, especially for those handling hundreds, or even thousands, of big round bales. For unprotected, outdoor storage, Niemeyer suggests finding a well-drained location with a 4- to 6-inch coarse rock base to help minimize bottom spoilage.

From there, the big decision is how to stack the bales. According to “Storing Large Round Bales Outside,” there are three common stacking methods in the Midwest:

Tightly stacking flat end to flat end in a single row to reduce weathering on the ends; if bales aren’t stacked tightly enough, weather can penetrate the ends and create damage.

Creating a pyramid with two bales on the bottom and one bale on top, which saves space but has the highest weathering loss if the pyramid isn’t covered with plastic.

The mushroom method, where the bottom bale is stacked with the flat end on the ground and the top bale is stacked on the round side; while this method can cause more spoilage to the bottom bale, overall, less hay is exposed to the ground.

Niemeyer reports that research shows outdoor storage losses can range anywhere from 5 to 35 percent. Losses can be reduced up to 66 percent with indoor storage and by 50 percent with good plastic covering outdoors.

Additionally, Dan Loy, Ph.D., Iowa State University Extension beef specialist, points out that losses to forages due to wind during grinding, especially when hay is ground to a fine (vs. rough) particle size, can be significant. Loy recommends covered storage for ground feedstuffs to help reduce weather and evaporation losses.

No matter the feedstuff, the storage location should be protected from the environment and animals. Loy reports that birds and rodents can consume a surprisingly large amount of feed. Starlings, for example, can eat as much as 2 pounds of feed per month, according to studies in Kansas. Likewise, ground rodents can find their way to spilled feed and make their homes near consistent feed sources. For birds and rodents, Loy recommends control methods like frightening devices; toxins and rodenticides; and routine cleaning and maintenance of feed areas, including regularly mowing weeds and tall grass.

An area of constant activity for some producers is bunker silos, where Loy says feed losses are affected by moisture, packing density and feed-out procedures. If stored too wet, high-moisture feeds like corn silage and high-moisture corn could see losses due to seeping. By contrast, packing may be compromised if stored too dry.

“Feed-out rate should be at least 6 to 12 inches to minimize storage losses,” Loy says. “During periods of warm weather, this should be increased to 18 inches, especially with high-moisture corn.”

A feedstuff growing in popularity, high-moisture corn – or that harvested at approximately 24 to 33 percent moisture, stored and allowed to ferment – doesn’t require drying (therefore, eliminating that cost). Additionally, high-moisture corn is harvested earlier than conventional corn, which helps widen the harvest window.

To store high-moisture corn for feeding purposes, it’s recommended to first roll the corn. Bunker silos or silage bags are good options for storing high-moisture corn. Much like corn silage, when using a bunker silo, high-moisture corn is packed with a tractor and tested frequently to ensure it stays at approximately 27 percent moisture during packing. If need be, water is added to maintain that moisture content. Bunker silos with a cement base and sides are advisable over earthen bunkers because they reduce spoilage. Further spoilage can be avoided by covering the bunker with plastic once all the high-moisture corn is in place.

Large-capacity plastic bags can also be utilized to store high-moisture corn and other feedstuffs. When using these bags, it’s advised to clear a large, flat space of rocks and other debris, creating enough room not only for the filled bag, but also for the equipment required to process the feed into the bag. Routine inspections of the bag for tears, holes or evidence of rodents is recommended.

“All feed can change in storage due to evaporation, seepage, wind loss, fermentation and spoilage,” Loy concludes. “Change in moisture is the biggest risk [to feed].”

Written by: Micky Burch, Nebraska Cattleman Assistant Editor
Source: August 2021 Nebraska Cattleman Magazine

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