Pearl Snaps

Stories of a cowgirl living life by her own lights

Forage Facts: Feeding Round Bales to Horses

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by Jesse Bussard

Forage is an integral part of the equine diet and being so makes it one of the largest expenses of horse ownership.  In today’s current market, hay prices have sky rocketed due to a limited supply from unfavorable growing conditions in 2011 across much of the United States.

This increase in hay prices has led many horse owners to consider round bales as an option in their forage purchases.  Round bales are typically lower in cost on a per ton basis when compared to that of small square bales.  The reason for this is the reduced labor and baling time needed to produce a round bale.  Small traditional square bales are ultimately more labor intensive to produce resulting in a higher cost per pound of forage.

There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when purchasing and feeding round bales to horses.  As with any other forage purchase, round bales need to be free from dust, weeds, and other contaminants.  Hay must also be harvested at an early growth stage to ensure adequate nutritional quality.   This is where a forage quality analysis comes in handy.

Once purchased the two biggest factors in maintaining forage quality in round bales are proper storage and utilization of a feeder.  Owning the proper equipment to handle these bales is also a necessity.

Researchers at North Carolina State University found that as much as 16% of the total volume of a 4-foot by 4-foot round bale can be lost in two-inch outer weathered layer.  The smaller the bale, the greater the losses will be.  The greatest dry matter losses occur on the bottom of the bale, adding up to a whopping 38% loss of forage.  In the long run this can add up to a lot of money going down the drain, not to mention the higher risk of bales developing mold.

To combat these risks some method of storage should be utilized to maintain the highest amount of forage quality possible.  This can be as simple as having bales plastic wrapped after baling, using net wrap or covering bales with tarps and cover.  Always be sure to elevate bales off the bare ground.  This will increase airflow and decrease the moisture uptake from the ground.  The best option for hay storage would be to have an indoor facility.  However, this isn’t always economical for the small horse owner.

When feeding round bales to horses it is wise to use a feeder.  There are many types of round bale feeders designed for horses available on the market today.  Each has its pros and cons but overall they will pay for themselves in the long run.  A 2010 study at the University of Minnesota proves this fact.  Their objective was to determine hay waste, hay intake, horse weight change and economics of 9 different styles of round bale feeders and a no-feeder control during horse feeding.

The results of the study clearly show that when feeding round bales to horses a feeder is a necessity.  The no-feeder control group was found to have an average hay waste of 57%.  Along with that, a reduced intake and horse weight loss was observed.  These negative results were attributed to the greater hay spoilage from horse defecation, urination, and trampling of hay.  Excessive waste also leads to mud and additional manure removal costs.

The nine round bale feeders evaluated resulted in a hay waste ranging from 5-33%.  Feeders that were more restrictive decreased hay waste.  The economics were impacted mainly by waste efficiency and feeder purchase price.  All nine round bale feeders repaid their costs within 20 months.

Though the added cost of purchasing a round bale feeder and providing adequate storage may seem daunting at first, these costs are recouped in a short period of time.  In the right situation, the benefits make round bales a more affordable forage source for horse owners when compared to traditional small square bales.

This article was originally featured as my February horse care column for Tack ‘n Togs.  You can access the pdf version here.

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