Locking Down Your Feeds

Grain and hay storage isn't a complicated process , but it is an integral part of horse management. Improperly stored hay and grain can result in the loss of nutrients and decreased palatability. And there can be health hazards for your horses.

Edgar A. Ott, PhD, professor in the department of animal sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.; and John H. Burton, PhD, who recently retired as a professor of nutrition in the animal and poultry science department at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, stress the importance of keeping grain and hay sheltered from the weather and rodents, and from the horses.

"The ideal feed storage structure is one that is completely enclosed," says Burton. "Besides protecting the grain and hay from the elements, it is important to prevent the horses from indulging themselves. They can get into trouble fairly quickly if they get into the grain."

To insure that horses can't get into the grain, it is best that the building or room has a door with a "horse-proof" latch. This storage building or room should also be as rodent-proof as possible.

Keeping Out the Critters

Rodents contaminate feed with their fecal droppings, making it undesirable for horses to eat. Raccoons and opossums can make a mess of a feed room, tearing bags open, overturning feed barrels, and ruining a large amount of feed in one night's raid. Both also pose a health hazard because of their ability to spread equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM).

"This means a feed room needs to be constructed of solid wood, metal, or concrete blocks and, if it has windows, that they are kept closed tightly," Burton explains.

Even so, mice, rats, and other rodents can enter through amazingly small holes or cracks. So additional efforts might be needed. Plug holes with steel wool or rat-wire mesh. "Use anti-rodent techniques," says Burton, "either live in the form of cats or a chemical rodenticide to keep them down to a minimum."

Although it's not as acceptable for some horse owners or employees, a resident black snake or Eastern milk snake (both nonpoisonous) should be welcomed, as they will help tremendously with controlling the rodent population.

Basically, you need to "protect the grain by closing the door so the big rodents can't get in, and put the feed in containers that the mice can't get into," reiterates Ott.

Moisture Management

Using containers also protects feed from getting wet if the roof is leaky. Repairing leaks would be best, though, because, "Moist grain will quickly lead to mold growth, and the resulting mycotoxin production can be very dangerous to horses' health," states Burton.

If the moisture is due to condensation or "sweat," perhaps from a metal roof, tack black plastic to the rafters to catch the moisture (and channel it into a safe place).

If your feed room is rodent-proof and waterproof, and you buy feed in bags, you can store the feed in the bags they come in. But it is difficult to keep a feed room rodent-free. Thus, Burton says, "Good quality metal containers such as garbage cans are often used. Anything that is solid and rodents can't chew through is suitable."

Unless the feed room is temperature-controlled, condensation can be a problem in the storage bins or containers. "Plastic containers create fewer problems with moisture than metal," says Ott. "Metal works well if the bins are full and the grain is dry when it goes in. But when the grain level gets down to about half full, there is the potential for condensation, more so in the hot, humid regions. So feed stored in metal containers should be used and replaced at least every two or three weeks. Because of the hot, humid weather in Florida, the key to good storage of grain is quick turnover."

Burton agrees and adds, "In the northern areas where there are rapid weather changes, and sometimes quite severe weather changes, there are condensation problems with metal containers. If warm air comes in contact with the cold metal, moisture will form."

No matter how you store it, they both agree that if you don't need to use the feed, perhaps because your horse is off at a training facility, you will likely have moisture in your storage containers that can produce mold in your grain in as little as three weeks.

Container Options

Generally, the type of grain doesn't affect the storage method. However, Ott says, "Most people don't store sweet feed in large bins because you can't get it out very easily. It sets up and gets hard (especially when it's cold). The best container for sweet feed is the bag, or put it in wooden feed bins."

Besides metal, wood, and plastic containers, non-working chest-type freezers can be used for storing grain, loose or in bags. However, it is crucial that this freezer be inaccessible to small children. A small child can easily get trapped and suffocate in a freezer because they can't open the freezer door once shut inside. Regardless of the container used, it should always be cleaned out before being filled with feed.

Hay Storage

While this isn't ideal, hay can be stored in the open or in open sheds, if it is covered or there is a barrier to keep rain, sleet, and snow off the bales. Barn curtains (or tarps) can be hung up on the sides of open sheds to block the elements, but they should not be touching the hay. If they touch the hay, condensation can occur. Hay sheds with an overhang are useful, as they can keep rain or snow off the hay.

"You generally have to accept some deterioration on the outside layer of hay if you don't have sides on your storage building. Wind will blow rain in on it, and the sun will bleach the outer layers. However, I don't worry too much about sun damage because it is seldom very deep. Sun bleaching isn't a big problem like moisture," says Ott.

"If you are looking at building new facilities, I don't recommend a hay loft," says Burton. "Storing hay in a loft above the horses results in more dust in the stable, and dust is detrimental to the horses' respiratory systems. You need to keep the horse stabling area as dust-free as possible."

Ventilation or exhaust fans under the peak of the stable roof can help eliminate not only heat but also dust. But all things considered, it is more economical to build a separate hay storage building than a loft over the stable, especially when the cost of fire insurance may be greatly reduced when the hay is stored separately.

While there are only minor variations of storage considerations due to climate, another consideration is moisture content of the hay and grain when harvested. Granted, most feed and forages are purchased from reputable feed stores after they have been dried properly. However, if grain or hay is bought direct from the field, there are a few things you need to know about storage.

In the northern regions such as Canada, the ideal moisture content of hay at harvest time is under 17%. "Moisture content at harvest time can vary due to weather and type of hay," explains Burton. "Some legumes, for example, take longer to cure than some of our grass hays. They either have a lot of leaf, or a thick leaf, like some of our clovers. Whereas timothy or brome leaves, because they are finer or thinner, will dry quicker."

Ott says, "We like the moisture content of our hay to be 12 to 14% at harvest time because hay will mold if you harvest it much above that. And ideally, after the hay has been cured or dried, it should be 10 to 13% (moisture) before feeding to horses."

When storing freshly harvested hay, Burton says, "The best way is to place it on the cut edge, because the moisture will be lost from the vertical stems much more quickly than stacking it horizontal."

This means the bales are stacked on their sides, rather than with the strings facing up and on the bottom. Also, it's best to stack every row in a different perpendicular direction than the row below, leaving up to one inch between the bales.

"They shouldn't be stacked too tight," Ott cautions. "The more air movement that you can get around the bales, the better-quality hay you are going to have to feed.

"It is very important to have air movement early in the storage so that the hay will dry properly," he says. "Open the doors up, have ventilation at the top of the barn, and have the bales put on pallets or somehow raised off the floor to allow air movement underneath.

"Stacking directly on the ground," says Ott, "is the worst situation because of the moisture that can come up into the bales. The next worst is concrete flooring, especially in our area, because moisture will condense on it. Unless, of course, the storage structure is elevated and there is good drainage away from it.

"Concrete is better than dirt, but pallets are better than concrete," Ott adds. He also cautioned that when putting up fresh-cut hay, keep it away from seasoned hay. The moisture from the fresh cut hay can wick to the dry hay, making it vulnerable to developing mold.

If freshly harvested hay bales are packed in a barn too tightly and there is very little to no ventilation, this can result in the loss of nutrients, development of mold, and a risk of fire from natural combustion during the heating process of the bales while curing.

Take-Home Message

Poor storage techniques of hay and grain can have a high price for horse owners. It is costly to replace moldy grain and hay, costly to feed a larger volume because of reduced nutrients, and costly for the veterinary care of horses which become ill from spoiled feed and forage. The most economical approach is to store grain and hay properly.



THEHORSE.COM POLL RESULTS: Where do you store your horse's hay and feed?

  • In a latched feed room in the barn with the horses: 40.54% (272)
  • In a separate building: 36.07% (242)
  • My horses only eat pasture grass: 3.13% (21)
  • Other: 20.27% (136)

Total Votes: 671

About the Author

Genie Stewart-Spears

Genie Stewart-Spears resides with her husband on Runamuck Ranch in southern Illinois, in the Shawnee National Forest. Now a pleasure rider, she competed in endurance for 10 years and has served as the Media Chairperson for the American Endurance Ride Conference. Her photography and articles appear in several equine magazines and many books, brochures, and advertisements.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More