Skip to main content

Tips to Making and Storing Quality Hay for Livestock

By Mike Donnelly
Extension Educator, Rice and Steele Counties

To those who have livestock, hay can be one of the most valuable feed sources available. Quality hay provides nearly all of the required nutrients to complete the diet of most livestock species. When harvested and stored correctly, a farm's hay supply can be kept for long periods of time with little loss of nutritional value. The following are a few key items to keep in mind when creating quality hay:

1. Stage of maturity at harvest. The stage of maturity at which to cut your hay crop varies based on the type of forage you are harvesting. The following suggestions are based on University of Kentucky Extension recommendations:
  • Alfalfa - Time of harvest at first cutting should be when the plant is in its late bud to first flower stage. For second and later cuttings, first flower to 1/10 bloom is suggested.

  • Bluegrass, Orchardgrass, Tall Fescue or Timothy - First cutting should occur at the boot to early head stage and other cuttings should be at 4 to 6 week intervals. The boot stage of growth is just before seed head emergence, and can be identified by the presence of enlarged or swollen area near the top of the main stem.

  • Red Clover or Crimson Clover - First flower to 1/10 bloom.

  • Oats, Barley or Wheat - Boot to early head stage.

  • Rye - Boot stage or before.

  • Sudangrass and Sorghum Hybrids - 40 inches tall or early boot stage, whichever comes first. 

2. Time and technique of cutting. If possible, cutting your hay during the early part of the day creates a number of benefits that can lead to a quality hay crop. When hay is cut in the early part of the day, it allows for a full day of drying and a faster drop in the moisture content. Furthermore, cutting hay into a wider window can also accelerate the drying rate.

3. Moisture content at baling and storage. The time at which hay is baled is critical for maximizing its nutritional value. The optimum moisture for baling hay is between 15 and 20 percent. Hay baled at a moisture level below 15 percent can result in great harvesting losses, especially for alfalfa, which can suffer leaf loss. When storing newly baled hay, moisture content should not exceed 20 percent in small bales and 18 percent in large bales to avoid discoloration, molding and heating, dry matter and nutrient loss. Lower moisture contents are necessary for larger bales because of less natural drying.

If hay is baled into smaller square bales at a moisture level higher than 20 percent, it is necessary to apply effective preservatives to prevent heating and molding from occurring. And, in the case of large bales, proper preservatives must also be applied to anything baled with a moisture content over 18 percent.

4. Storage conditions. Properly storing baled hay can lessen the amount of lost dry matter and nutrient quality. If it is necessary to store hay outdoors, it is best to prevent direct contact with the ground to avoid additional moisture uptake which can cause molding--try placing hay bales on layers of coarse gravel, old tires or wood pallets. Additionally, if bales are not able to be stored under a roof, consider investing in tarps or storage buildings to protect from rain and other precipitation.

Putting things into perspective, a University of Kentucky study (Burdine et al., 2005) evaluated five different hay storage methods and the affect each had on percent dry matter (DM) loss:
  • Outside on the ground - 30% DM loss

  • Outside on gravel pad - 20% DM loss

  • Outside on gravel pad w/tarp - 10% DM loss

  • Plastic bale cover - 7% DM loss

  • Under roof - 5% DM loss

As with any crop, hay requires an investment of time, labor and money. Correctly harvesting and storing your hay to preserve its value can result in increased quality of forage for your livestock and an adequate return on your investment.

Following is a link to the University of Minnesota Extension Forages Website: