Why Are Hay Bales Left In Fields?

If you’ve ever driven by a field filled with fluffy bales of hay, you might be wondering, “why are hay bales left in fields?” Although it sometimes just comes down to timing – the farmer is in the process of picking up bales but hasn’t made it around to all of them yet – there are a few other reasons why you might see this happening. 

What’s the Point of Hay Bales?

What’s the Point of Hay Bales

Hay bales, whether they’re round or square, serve a valuable role on any farm.

If you raise any kind of livestock that eats hay – including cattle, sheep, horses, and goats – it’s essential to have bales of hay hanging around for when there is no grass to graze on during the winter months.

Round bales are easier to feed to cattle and horses as they can be stored and served “in bulk,” often simply by rolling the bale along the ground to unravel the hay. Round bales don’t have to be cut to feed while square bales do. 

That said, regardless of the type of hay bale you are producing, it’s important to have a plan to get the hay off the field and undercover as soon as possible. Picking up hay is an integral part of the hay making process, as you will see in the helpful video below:

Problems With Leaving Hay Bales Out

There are a few reasons why leaving hay in the field is not the preferred option for most farmers.

Spoilage Due to Weather

The biggest has to do with the weather. Leaving the bales out for too long can spoil the bales, especially when rainwater gets inside. Round bales do have less ground exposure so the water can run off instead of soak in like it might with square hay bales that are resting almost completely on the ground.

If the round bales are packed tightly, this makes it harder for water to get in, too. 

Smothering Plants Beneath

Another issue that comes into play is when you smother the forage plants beneath the bales. Round bales are heavy – up to 2,000 lbs, in some cases – so it’s easy to see how plants could be crushed. 

That’s especially true when bales are left in the field for long periods of time – a week or more. The forage will have a much harder time recovering if a bale was placed over it for a long time. Whether you plan on grazing animals on that field or harvesting another crop of hay, it’s not a good thing.

Even if you don’t plan on doing a single thing with the hayfield later on, hay bales also provide a haven for weeds to grow. That’s something else to be considered. 

Reduced Production with Increased Costs

Some farmers may see the oft-cited statistics about driving on fields during regrowth, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to rush out to grab the bales, since plants driving on right after harvest will yield five to seven percent less during the next cutting.

However, the reality is that the impacts are even worse if you put things off. Procrastinating and leaving the bales in the field can cause a whopping 25% reduction in yield. You might also kill the plants that are left behind, too. 

Wheel traffic can cause compaction and damage, resulting in a serious loss of yield. 

Damaged Bales

Even if the weather isn’t awful, hay bales that are left in a field for long periods of time start to lose quality. They can become moldy, soft, and flat, making them difficult to handle because they fall apart.

Although square bales will be ruined faster, all kinds of bales can suffer from an inch or two of loss if they’re left outside for any period of time. 

Why Do Farmers Have Hay Bales in Fields?

There are a few reasons why farmers leave hay bales in the field despite the risks.

Sometimes, it’s because they don’t have a great storage area. If the barn is already full, leaving the bales of hay out in the field might be the only option. You can’t put round bales in a haymow, so if room on the farm is limited, keeping the bales in the field might be the next best thing. 

You might find hay bales left in a field simply because a farmer hasn’t had time to stop by and grab the bales yet. Most farmers work overtime during the summer to get the hay in the barn by the time the fields stop producing. However, haying is a time-consuming process and there often just aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

In some cases, leaving the hay outside is done purposefully. Some farmers let the hay stay outside a bit longer to dry – although this can easily backfire. There are some weed seeds that can be killed by this, too, although it can also cause weed seeds to proliferate – so you need to be careful. 

Of course, the most obvious reason why farmers leave bales of hay out for a bit (though no more than a few days) is to let the bales dry. Stacking wet hay poses the risk of it becoming moldy or catching on fire. If they’re still in the field, they’ll still have good air exposure so they can dry a bit better until you get them undercover.

Tips for Removing Hay Bales

When it comes time to remove the hay bales from your field, follow these simple tips. 

  1. For one, remove the bales as soon as you can after cutting. Plan ahead so that a storage area is available so you can minimize the amount of driving you have to do on already sensitive (or wet) soils.
  2. When you have to make multiple trips into a field, try to follow the same wheel track. This will limit the area damaged by your tractor tires.
  3. Finally, if you are producing hay that will ultimately be fed to horses, make sure you don’t let the hay get wet at all. It needs to come inside as soon as possible. Although cattle and other ruminants can get good use out of hay that’s been left out, horses can get extremely ill and even die after eating this kind of hay.

What Do Farmers Do With Old Hay Bales?

Most farmers do ultimately pick up their hay and put it in the barn for storage. However, there are some situations in which the bale never gets picked up – and the old hay needs to be used for something besides feeding animals.

Old, moldy hay can be used in several ways. Many farmers use it as animal bedding for barns. It can be used for seeding, mulching, and even decoration! There are plenty of uses for old hay bales – so while picking up hay as soon as it’s been baled is ideal, it doesn’t have to go to waste if that doesn’t happen.

If you are looking for more information about this topic, here is our guide to balers.

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