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Storing hay, roughage and bedding is not something to worry about for most horse owners, because the stable operator takes care of it. Only when storage damage occurs, i.e. mouldy hay due to improper storage, is there an issue. Spoiled hay can lead to considerable and long-term health problems – for example in the forms of chronic cough, faecal water, colic, or even miscarriages in broodmares.

Plastic-wrapped hay is not the answer

Heulage in der Pferdefütterung
©Westwind / AdobeStock

Many stable operators have the idea to swap hay for haylage because the plastic-wrapped bales can be stored outside. However, this causes just as many health problems in the long term as mouldy hay does. Not to mention the fact that it uses copious amounts of single-use plastic that builds up year after year and ends up in landfill – haylage is quite simply not good for a horse’s health. Feeding ensiled fodder is usually fine for cattle because, on average, they do not live long enough for it to become an issue, before they are slaughtered. But if your horse is meant to be a companion for many years, you should refrain from feeding them ensiled feed. Sensible hay storage, therefore, is the be-all and end-all of every horse yard.

Moisture is the beginning of all mould

The most important thing, above all, is to keep the hay dry. Moisture from the ground, especially if the hay is stored on earth or sand; condensation dripping off the roof, or clinging to walls; high humidity, such as fog; or rain falling on the hay – these are all fatal issues. There’s no point in having well-dried hay if it just consistently draws in moisture over the next few weeks or months. The microorganisms that contribute to mouldy hay thrive in a humid climate – the wetter it is, the better it is for them. However, maintaining dry storage is not always that easy.

Premium storage: the barn

The best-case scenario involves the yard having a good old barn. With a floor made of stone, wood, or concrete, it provides protection from the moisture below. A well-designed ventilation system ensures the hay will not spontaneously combust whilst sweating, and that no condensation will drip onto the hay itself. Walls and doors protect against weather such as rain or passing fog. Unfortunately, local building regulations often prevent the construction of a good barn and, especially if you’re a small DIY community of owners in the middle of nowhere, building a barn usually becomes impossible.

A cheaper alternative: the hay tent

Instead, many people use a hay tent on a field in order to store hay for the next few weeks or – in the large version – for the entire winter. The tents are available in semi-circular or classic ‘house-shaped’ forms and can be placed on the field without a foundation base (i.e. without long-term soil sealing). They are usually secured against inclement weather with long stakes. Check for permission with your local municipality or council, as hay tents may still require a permit.

Enclosing the sides

Make sure you can close the front of the tent with tarpaulin, using tent poles. Leave an opening through which you can access the hay every day – but make sure the opening is not on the side which receives most of the bad weather (usually west). This opening is normally open for a longer period of time when the hay is taken out or can no longer be closed fully after a time due to wear and tear. In these cases, rain and fog can often get inside and accelerate spoilage.

Heufütterung im Offenstall
© acceptfoto / Adobe Stock

Important for storing on the ground: the foundation

To prevent hay bales from drawing moisture in from the soil, do not place them directly onto the ground. Instead, put at least one layer of pallets (preferably two) on the ground before placing the bales on top. A double layer is more costly but ensures better ventilation from below. It is the safer option to forgo the single-use pallets and invest instead in the somewhat more expensive pallets, which vary in size depending on your location. Single-use pallets can break very easily, are often unstable, and usually need to be disposed of after one winter due to rotting anyway.

CAUTION: Beware condensation!

Do not stack hay bales up against walls or up to the ceiling. As soon as the sun shines on the tent, water vapour always rises from the hay (on average, hay contains about 10-15% residual moisture, even when it feels very dry) and settles upon the tarpaulin. Tents that are semi-circular or gable-shaped allow the water to run off, but make sure to not put any bales in the way of the water running down the sides.

This is a main problem with storing hay in tents. As anyone who has ever gone camping would know, the inside of the tent becomes damp, causing the hay to become mouldy and spoil much faster than if it had been stored in a barn. The smaller the tent, the higher the risk of inadequate ventilation that allows moisture to build up. Do not cover the hay with tarpaulin that rests directly on the bales. This method is unfortunately used in small open yards or in shared DIY fields. This type of storage is not only inconvenient for the daily feeding, but also ensures that you can literally witness the hay going mouldy.

Pferdeweide mit kurzem Gras
©Residence View / AdobeStock

First in, first out

For small hay tents or hay bales covered in tarpaulin, make sure that the hay is stored in an accessible way so that you can feed promptly, and not have the hay lying there forever. In order for this to work, only store the amount needed for a few days or weeks and feed in the ‘first in, first out’ method. Always feed the old bales before bringing the news ones, as the longer the hay is under the tarpaulin, the higher chance that it will spoil.

The low-budget option: The hay fleece

A cheaper alternative to hay tents is a hay fleece, which have been on the market for several years and are used in many stables, even large ones. Hay fleeces are made of a water-repellent (not waterproof!) fabric that allows moisture to evaporate. It is comparable to a wind-proof jacket. The hay bales are stacked on pallets (again, it’s best to have two rows of pallets) and then on top of each other to form a gable-style roof; this works a lot better with round bales than square.

Standing water seeps through hay fleeces

If there is a flat surface on top of the tent, rainwater collects there and seeps into the hay fleece. With sloping sides, it instead allows the rainwater to run off the sides so the hay can remain largely dry. An advantage of using a hay fleece over a regular tarpaulin is that the moisture can evaporate again; thus, condensation does not occur. You won’t end up with soggy, spoilt bales this way. Make sure to store the hay in a way in which sun and wind can remove moisture from the store quickly. If the store is positioned to be protected from the wind or in the shade of trees, this ends up working poorly.

Conclusion: There are many storage options for hay, but not all of them are right for everyone

When building equestrian facilities, or converting a former farm to horse husbandry, the hay storage should not be neglected. From the very beginning, a proper barn should be included with the design. Where this is not possible, good alternatives are hay tents and hay fleeces. Of course, a hay fleece will never be as good as a barn or a large, semi-circular, well-ventilated tent. However, it is still a viable and affordable alternative, as long as it is used properly, for those who cannot use the other options or have building regulations.

If the storage facilities are bad, less should be stored.

The best thing to do when your storage conditions are not up to scratch is to only store what you need for a reasonable period of time. Having a farmer with a proper barn who can provide regular supplies is beneficial. This way, you can have good results with hay fleeces or hay tents, even in unfavourable locations, and without having to resort to haylage.

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