If you were to ask us after 11 years of horse ownership what we would do differently, one of the things we’d tell you is that we should have built some additional hay storage. Since hay is a commodity the prices vary dramatically depending on the weather. In these last 11 years, no two years have been alike.
- Hot, dry years when we wondered if we’d have to buy hay from South Dakota and have it shipped in by tractor-trailer (only partially kidding)
- Years that started off fine only to end dry, yielding one good cutting and barely anything else
- Wet years we initially rejoiced over until we realized there wasn’t enough consistent sunshine to dry the hay in the field.
And then there is this year – just about the perfect balance between sunshine and rain, yielding a bumper crop of rich, thick grass that grows fast. The second cutting is down and rolled and the fields are green and tall with what will probably be a good third cutting. Farmers are leaving rolls in the field, with nowhere to put it all. Everywhere you look there are barns piled to their roofs with beautiful hay. This is the time of year to make sure you have all of your hay purchased or reserved for the coming winter and normally we need to go looking for some. This year I have people calling me to see if I’m a buyer. Feast or famine, I suppose. This weekend we purchased an additional 15 round bales, 4×5 and tightly wound. Each lasts about a week for our three horses and mule. The price was a very inexpensive $25 a bale. We could have bought more but the truth is our barn is totally full. For the first time ever we’ve filled the center aisle and some of the side in front of the stall doors. I hope we don’t need to let horses in for any reason for the next several months. But this is the problem to have, much better than searching high and low in February and paying a hefty sum for smaller bales. We’ve paid as much as $45 for a 4×4 bale in previous winters when our count was off. We’ve slid into spring with barely a few handfuls of hay left from emergency square bales. Believe me, having too much hay is the problem to have.
Hay storage options
We’ve considered several options over the years:
- Supplier storage – this is great if you can get it. One year a supplier agreed to hold 25 bales for us at no additional charge, inside his barn. As our supply dropped, we’d run over to get another load or two at a time. I don’t think this arrangement is very common but if you find one who will do it, buy them lunch and add them to your Christmas card list!
- Outside tarped – we almost did it this year but in previous years we’ve had difficulty with this method. The hay wicks moisture from the ground into the bale and causes mold. Cows don’t mind so much but horses shouldn’t be exposed to mold. We even used pallets but the hay breaks down over time underneath which acts as a wick. Also, tarps aren’t super cheap and they don’t last long in the sun. This is okay if it’s all you have but we lose 30-40% of the bales we store this way long term.
- Marshmallow rolled – we haven’t tried this but we’ve seen farms in the area that do. Some suppliers (I don’t know any) use a plastic that wraps the entire bale so they can be stacked outside in a field. You’ve probably seen pictures at least – they look like long lines of field marshmallows. This has to be more expensive but I’m not sure how much.
- Hay storage building construction – prices will vary depending on where you are, how big you make it, out of what materials, and how much of the construction you can do yourself. We built a carport recently that would hold about 35 4×5 round bales stacked. We used 6×6 wooden poles, three steel trusses, and metal roofing. Although we dug the post holes ourselves (a huge pain in the hard Tennessee clay), we paid someone to set them and complete construction. The total cost here in east Tennessee was about $3,000 in parts and labor but not including covering for the sides (they are open). You’d need to grade the ground so it didn’t trap moisture after rain and you’d still lose some hay to mold but overall I think this is the best solution. We’re considering building one of these for future hay storage.
If you’re considering owning horses, you must have a plan for hay purchase and storage. If you plan well and have some good fortune with the weather you can help keep costs down by buying when the prices are low so you have some options if the next year is too dry or too wet.