Understanding Round and Square Bale Hay for Horses, Part 2

Understanding Round and Square Bale Hay for Horses, Part 2

Small square bales are the most common form of hay for horses.

Photo: Photos.com

Hay for horses can be purchased in many forms, but the two most common are round bales and small square bales. Both have significant advantages and challenges and can be a source of quality forage for horses when managed correctly. In this second of this two-part series, we will explore square bales and how to best use them. (Read last month’s article focusing on round bales at TheHorse.com/36871.)

Before purchasing or putting up hay, it is important to consider that forage quality is not dependent on size or shape. High-quality (or low-quality) hay can be packaged in round or square, large or small bales. Forage quality is at its peak when harvested at the correct stage of maturity. The extent of quality loss is related primarily to time, management, and weather conditions. Once baled and stored properly, forage quality losses are minimal over a long period of time. Improper feeding of hay can also cause significant quality and quantity losses.

Small Square Bales

Small square bales are the most common form of hay for horses—and for good reason. They are conveniently sized, easy to handle, and are typically higher in quality than round bales (mainly because more care is usually put into harvesting and storing them), but these perks come at a price, as small bales are more expensive than large round ones.

Making: Baling forage into small square bales is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Unless you purchase a hay accumulator, bales must be picked up from the field and stacked in a barn by hand. Whether you are making your own hay or purchasing it, labor will increase the forage’s overall cost.

Size: Small square bales are just that—small. Traditionally they are about 3 feet long by 18 inches wide and just over 1 foot tall and can range from 35-70 lbs, with an average of 50 lbs. Hay producers prefer bales to be denser to save room when stacking in a storage facility and for transport. However, many horsemen prefer lighter bales that are easier to handle.

Storage: Because of the added labor and, thus, cost involved with square bales, they are almost always stored indoors. Their flat surface would collect water and cause them to deteriorate rapidly if left uncovered. If stored inside, forage quality remains stable for a prolonged period with minimal changes in forage quality. Storage losses are usually minimal when bales are tied tight. Loose or broken strings, however, often result in lost material.

Handling: This is another area where small square bales have an advantage. Unless you are moving a large number of bales or traveling a long distance, you can maneuver bales by hand.

Using hay feeders, such as mangers, racks, or nets, will reduce feeding losses either in a stall or in a paddock.

Photo: University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment

Small farms might purchase a couple of bales at a time and transport them in a truck, horse trailer, or even an SUV. Small square bales are easily fed in stalls and ideal if intake needs to be limited.

Feeding Losses: As with round bales, feeding losses with square bales can be significant and vary widely. When feeding in a stall, some horses will drag their hay around, resulting in much higher losses. Some people will shake hay out into a pile, making it harder to spread around. Using hay feeders, such as mangers, racks, or nets, will reduce feeding losses either in a stall or in a paddock. Using feeding pads in paddocks will also reduce feeding losses by keeping hay out of mud. Most horses will choose to graze over consuming hay, so some is likely be wasted if fresh forages are available.

Summary: Small square bales are easy to store, handle, and feed. This convenience comes at a price; small square bales will likely be much more expensive than similar quality round bales. Storage is usually not an issue with these bales, but hay feeders are essential to reducing feeding losses.

Many equine operations find that a combination of round bales and small square bales work best. Round bales are more economical for feeding groups of horses in a pasture setting while small square bales are far easier for individual feeding. Regardless of what type or size of hay you choose, feeding losses can add up quickly and cost your operation substantially. Investing some time and money into reducing these losses will ultimately pay off in the long run. Hay is an important aspect of managing horses, but pasture is always less expensive than hay of any size or shape.

Krista Lea, MS, coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program; Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist; and Tom Keene, hay marketing and production specialist, provided this information. All three are part of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

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