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Alfalfa Hay Storage: Methods & Tips

Summer is an ideal time to plan the most effective method for storing alfalfa hay during the winter months. The approach may vary depending on location and available resources, but certain recommendations apply universally. The primary objective of winter alfalfa hay storage is to preserve its quality and minimize dry matter losses.

Alfalfa Hay Storage Methods

If you want efficient hay storage, then you should start from the cutting stage. There are certain tips and methods you can follow during the cutting and baling process, etc. This will eventually help you in the later stages of alfalfa hay storage.

 Research has shown that dry matter losses can reach as high as 25 percent in such cases, depending on bale quality and storage conditions. Typically, the most significant deterioration occurs on the outer 4-8 inches of the bale. It’s worth noting that in a five-foot-diameter bale, this outer layer represents roughly half of the bale’s volume. The extent of weathering depends on various factors, including the amount of rainfall during storage, the condition of the alfalfa when baled, the bale’s shape, and its density.

The steps to follow for successful alfalfa hay storage are described below.

  • Cutting

The initial stages of ensuring top-quality hay involve cutting and conditioning, which are crucial steps. After cutting, the plant continues to respire or “breathe” until its water content drops to about 40 percent. Below this point, leaves dry much faster than stems because leaves are thinner and have a relatively large surface area compared to their mass, unlike stems. Consequently, by the time the stems reach the right moisture content for baling, the leaves may have become overly dry and prone to shattering.

When it comes to the task of cutting alfalfa, there are numerous pieces of equipment to consider. The reputed Alfalfa hay suppliers use sickle bar mowers, mower-conditioners, rotary disk mowers, disk mowers, conditioners, pull-type windrowers, and self-propelled windrowers, among others.

  • Baling

To prevent significant storage losses due to excessive heating and molding, it’s recommended to bale alfalfa at a moisture level of no more than 20 percent. However, it’s possible to successfully bale and store alfalfa with higher moisture levels by utilizing preservatives.

 Depending on the type of preservative used, it’s feasible to bale hay with as high as 35 percent moisture levels. Baling at increased moisture levels, such as provided by Maple Gems and other premium suppliers, has several advantages, including reducing the time the hay is exposed to the elements and decreasing dry matter loss because there’s less leaf shattering. This, in turn, can result in higher crude protein content.


  • Bale Size

Small Rectangular Bales: Small rectangular bales were the predominant choice for alfalfa for many years. These “square” bales typically measured 14 x 18 inches with a length of 36 inches and weighed between 70 to 80 pounds, depending on the moisture content. Baling rates usually fell within the range of 5 to 10 tons per hour.

Large Rectangular Bales: Many dairies prefer using Large Rectangular Bales due to their practicality. When it comes to dry matter losses during the baling process, they are comparable to those observed with small rectangular balers. 

Large Round Bales: When dealing with excessively dry hay, it’s essential to note that alfalfa leaf loss can reach up to 10 percent during the pickup process and increase to 25 percent in the baling chamber. However, by using large round bales, it’s possible to minimize total losses to around five percent.

  • Mechanical Conditioning

One of the most common ways to speed up the drying process of stems is through mechanical conditioning. This technique involves the use of special machines equipped with a pair of counter-rotating rollers that serve to crush, bend, or break the stems. This action helps the moisture trapped in the stems to escape more easily. The advantage of quicker stem drying is that it allows for the earlier baling of hay, reducing the time it is exposed to potentially adverse weather conditions.

  • Chemical Conditioning

Using additives can speed up field curing and reduce losses during baling.

There are two primary groups of chemicals available to improve hay quality: drying agents and inhibitors. These chemicals operate differently to enhance your hay production.

Drying Agents: Drying agents are commonly used in agriculture to expedite the drying process of alfalfa. These chemicals alter the water-transmitting properties of hay and allow moisture to escape more easily. Research has demonstrated that they can reduce total drying time by as much as 24 hours, with an average reduction of about 12 hours.

When employing chemical conditioning, it’s important to adjust the shields on mower conditioners so that the hay is spread out in a thin layer covering the entire swath width. Drying agents are most effective when the hay is dried in a thin mat.

Regarding costs, the expense of chemical conditioning can vary depending on the type of drying agent and the recommended application rate. It’s important to consider the additional labor demand as well, as mixing and handling water and chemicals can increase the total mowing time by as much as 20 percent.

Inhibitors: Inhibitors play a crucial role in preventing significant storage losses when baling alfalfa at moisture levels exceeding 20 percent. With the right preservative, it’s possible to bale hay with moisture content as high as 35 percent. Baling at higher moisture levels has several advantages: it reduces the exposure of hay to adverse weather conditions and minimizes dry matter loss by reducing leaf shatter.

  • Hay Storage

Alfalfa hay, whether in small or large square bales, is typically stored in covered facilities by most commercial hay producers. 

  • Enclosed barns are the preferred choice as they help maintain the hay’s color and minimize storage losses.
  •  Some also opt for under-roof storage with one or more sides left open, particularly for round bales. These open sides are positioned away from prevailing winds, and the hay is tightly stacked along them and at the top to prevent rain and snow from entering the building. 
  • It’s essential to place barns and under-roof storage on well-drained sites and as close to feeding areas as possible.
  • Dry matter losses in enclosed barns typically stay under 2% during the first nine months of storage, whereas losses in under-roof storage can go up to five percent. 

Fortunately, these storage methods have minimal impact on forage quality, including crude protein and fiber. However, the primary downside of using barns and under-roof storage is the cost.

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