Hay season is here and it’s time to stack up some fresh cutting horse hay in your barn. Maybe you have a dealer or farmer that delivers and stacks your hay supply for you, or perhaps you do all the hard work yourself.
Whichever way your hay arrives neatly stacked in your barn or storage building, it is smart to know a few basics of haymaking and hay storage, so that you can be confident you are not playing with fire.
Clean up the space
While it may be tempting to just pile new hay on old, and leave the spiders and cobwebs, dust and hay chaff, vermin droppings on the floor, it is much better to have a sweep up and clean your storage space. This will remove not just dust or mold, it will ensure the space is clean and dry too. If you stack fresh hay on top of a damp base, the resulting temperature build up could cause a fire.
Check your roof and fix any holes that need repair now. A slow drip onto a stack of hay can cause mold and will cause hay wastage. The farmer went to a lot of trouble to bale up clean, dry hay (I hope), so you don’t want to stack it and get it wet. Hay that becomes wet can also catch fire when the temperatures soar and heat builds in the space.
Hopefully your barn has been designed with good ventilation. In the loft space the gable ends should have grills to allow hot air to escape during summer months. Don’t stack to the roof and block that airflow channel if you can avoid it.
Many modern barns, offer airflow through meshed or perforated soffits. A ridge vent can also provide a great relief for hot air to escape. Traditionally, cupolas also served the purpose of providing a method to dissipate hot air and encourage air to be drawn up through the building. In some barns an electric extractor fan is installed in the cupola space to aid in the movement of air through the building.
If you are building a new barn, always consider the airflow for both your horses and your hay storage needs. An experienced barn building company can advise you not just on how to design good ventilation, add cupolas that only look pretty but serve a sincere purpose, but also can provide suggestions for where to site your barn for best airflow.
Outside access doors to lofts
Safety is a huge concern when you have a mall or loft space for storage above the barn. Bringing in the hay supply is often a family affair, so always protect everyone but especially children, by providing some sort of barrier to the exit.
If the access door is not a sliding design, be certain it is properly secured when open, as wind can cause mayhem with blowing the door back and forth when you are trying to bring hay in. You don’t want it to break free and fall on those working below. When you are finished for the day, don’t leave this door open without a barrier of some sort. Kids love to play in haylofts.
If you have a mall or loft space, a conveyor can make hay transport much easier. Conveyors are typically quite heavy, and should be secured at the top end if placed up to a mall, to ensure when they are overloaded with an enthusiastic helper placing hay at a fast rate onto the unit, the machine does not slip backward into their space or fall down. Always have the plug close at hand so that it can be quickly disconnected in case of emergency and never move the conveyor when it is switched on. If possible assign someone in proximity of the plug, the task of watching all folks around the conveyor in case someone falls on it or slips, so it can be quickly shut off. NEVER allow anyone to walk up or down the conveyor to the mall. Safety first. Always.
When you have finished with the conveyor be aware the motor may be hot. Never store the conveyor with the motor in direct contact with hay and keep the motor free of hay detritus.
If you pick up your hay in an open vehicle or trailer, or if it is delivered this way, ensure that it has not been showered or rained on. Hay that even received a spritz of rain once baled, will not be truly dry. If you store it without it being properly dry, it will mold and dust and again, can provide a fire hazard. Hay stored on trailers can pick up road spray even if it is not actually rained upon from above. Check the load before it is unloaded if it has been brought in by someone else.
Moisture content matters
All hay should be baled at less than 14% moisture content. If it isn’t, it will most certainly mold and dust and may spontaneously combust. It should be clean and green. Clean meaning weed free and green meaning never wet and baled at the best time in the season when the grass is at its peak of nutrition and before it goes over i.e. seeds. Weedy hay may not only contain plants that are harmful to your horse, but is also very difficult to cure properly as the variety of plant life will dry and cure unevenly.
How can you moisture test a bale? You can purchase a moisture meter, a wand like battery run device that you can prod into any bale and have an immediate moisture content reading. You can purchase one for approximately $125 - $130 from your local tractor dealer or online. This tool is well worth the money.
Certain hay growers may use dry down agents and drying agents on the hay they produce. This can facilitate a quicker curing time before baling. However, be aware, many of the varietal chemical agents that are approved (or not approved) for use on hay, have not been tested for safe ingestion without side effects for horses.
Your hay should smell sweet and have a pleasant not cloying odor. It should not feel greasy. Certain product additives may cause respiratory inflammation in horses, especially in youngstock. So do your homework and know the provenance of your hay.
I had a hay dealer recently impart a story of how he had purchased hay from someone else and the customer had complained that their horses wouldn’t eat it. The farmer who produced the hay was contacted and he explained he had used fire-retardant on his hay!
At our farm we grow our hay organically, and never add not chemical fertilizers or other any additives to the hay. We make hay the old fashioned way, using Mother Nature’s sunny rays.
If hay does get wet before baling, it can be properly cured and baled, but be aware it will have a slightly reduced vitamin and mineral benefit.
The advantages of handling hay yourself
When you handle hay yourself you are picking up every bale so if you come across a bale that seems excessively heavy or smells bad, you can discard it or moisture check it to make sure it is not an errant hot bale.
How to stack it
Always stack hay with cut side down. That means the strings will always be on the side of the bale when you look at the stack. Not only does this deter mice from gnawing on the strings of the bale, it also allows moisture to run down through the stack to the bottom layer. Hay should be stacked in a crisscross manner, one layer in one direction and the next layer the other direction etc. and not packed too tightly to allow some air gap between bales.
On larger stacks the bottom layer will necessarily hold moisture over time, and these bales are not usually horse worthy hay at that point. We sell our bottom layer of hay off to a local pig farmer. If you see a bale that is evidently extra flattened on one side and suspect it has come off the bottom layer of the stack at the source, then check its moisture content or pull a handful of hay from the center of the bale and smell it.
You can put your hay on pallets to try to encourage air flow under the stack. Never store hay directly on concrete or the ground, for it will pull up moisture from the contact point between the bale and the ground. Use of a tarpaulin cover for the floor is recommended, but no matter what you try the bottom of the stack will always be suspect for horse hay.
What to do if you suspect a fire?
If you believe your hay stack or stored hay may be building excessive heat or is spontaneously combusting inside the stack, do not take the stack apart yourself to check. Call the Fire Department immediately. When you pull a stack of hay apart and it has a high heat index inside, it may spontaneously combust with the introduction of fresh oxygen.
Always keep fire extinguishers handy and make sure they are properly maintained. These should be a part of your fire prevention program in your barn or buildings, and include emergency contact numbers on the wall for quick access. It should go without saying that no smoking should be allowed anywhere around hay and horses, and that signs posted to that effect should be in place. It is also prudent to refrain from storing flammable solvents such as gas cans near hay.
It is also smart to keep hot motors such as recently used mowers, ATVs or other equipment away from the haystack and if backing up to the stack to load out hay on a pick up or into a tractor bucket keep all exhaust pipes clear of the stack.
As an experienced hay producer for over 25+ years I’ve certainly seen my share of idiot moves of folks around hay. Please stay safe and keep those around you safe.
Buy good quality hay, load it smartly and tie down loads adequately, store it carefully and keep your horses, friends and family safe. Every year thousands of barns burn down just because of poor hay handling practices. Make sure yours is not one of them.
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Headquartered in South-Central Pennsylvania, Horizon Structures, LLC is owned by Dave Zook. Dave was raised in the Amish tradition and grew up working in the family-owned shed business. He started Horizon Structures in 2001 in response to an ever-increasing customer demand for high quality, affordable horse barns.
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About Nikki Alvin-Smith: International and national published freelance writer and photographer in such world renowned publications such as The Chronicle of the Horse, Horse and Hound, Dressage and CT, Warmbloods Today, The Horseman’s Yankee Pedlar, Reiter, The Equine Journal, Spur, Hoofprints, Horsin’ Around, Horses All, Field & Stream, Western Horse and Gun, Pony Quarterly, Catskill Horse to name a few. Ghostwriting, blog services, PR/Marketing copy either direct with manufacturer or for agencies, copy editing and editor services also available. Nikki also produces catalog copy, white papers, e-books, corporate brochures and advertising copy for international corporations and PR/Marketing for celebrities.
As a Brit who has called the America home for the past 34 years, Nikki brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. Nikki is also an accomplished Grand Prix dressage trainer/competitor, competing at international Grand Prix level to scores over 72% and is a highly sought clinician offering clinics worldwide. She has been a horse breeder/importer of warmblood and Baroque breeds for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Paul who is also a Grand Prix trainer, they run a private dressage breeding operation and training yard in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York. Please visit http://www.NikkiAlvinSmithStudio.com to learn more.
By Nikki Alvin-Smith