How To Bale and Store Hay

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Hay baling is hard work, really hard work. But engaging in traditional farm chores will vastly cut down on animal feed costs while ensuring meat, milk, and recreational livestock.

Typically, a hay field can be cut twice each year – but depending upon the weather and location of the agricultural land, could be cut three times per year.

The first cut of the season is commonly some time in late May to early June and the second cut occurs before the end of August. If the weather is with you or if your survival homesteading retreat is located in a warm climate, it may be possible to get a third hay cutting in July or September.

cutting hay

Before hay can be baled, it must be cut and then raked – typically two or three times, to make sure it is thoroughly dried. This hay field is being raked or for a second time to ensure no damp grass remains in any clump that could spark the creation of mildew during storage.

Types Of Hay Bales

The the of hay baler you choose is dictated by basically four factors:

1. How much you have to spend.
2. How many acres will be baled.
3. What type of livestock will be eating the hay.
4. Will the bales be lifted by hand or a tractor when being stored and during feedings.

hay that's been mound up

The raking process mounds up the hay slightly, and prepares it to be picked up by the hay baler being pulled by a tractor.

Round Hay Bales

Round bales usually weigh between 800 and 1,500 pounds each. Obviously, these bales will need to be lifted by a fork attachment on a tractor, or rolled from their storage spot to a feeding spot by two adults or strong teenagers.

Round Hay Bales

Round bales are great for cattle, horses, and buffalo. These large animals eat a lot of hay in a short amount of time. A round bale is lifted into a hay ring in a field by a tractor and provides feed for several days or longer, depending upon the type and number of livestock.

These types of hay bales can be stored outdoors without much concern about them drawing moisture that would make them unsafe to eat by horses. Cattle, and other ruminant animals, can consume a certain amount of moist or slightly mildewed hay that would cause a horse to become potentially deadly ill.

Round bales are more densely packed that square bales, which permits the hay to naturally ferment, helping prevent the mold and rot that can grow during storage.

In just the past several years, mini round balers were introduced to the market. These bales generally weigh about the same as a standard square bale or are slightly smaller. They can be pulled by compact tractors or even via an attachment to an ATV vehicle.

While round bales are the balers of choice for harvesting hay from large acreage, the mini round balers are best suited for folks who are only baling a few acres and need winter feed for small to medium livestock, and do not have access to large farming equipment.

baling hay

Square Hay Bales

Square bales are actually rectangular in shape unless you are harvesting what is commonly referred to as “large square bales.” The rectangular hay bales commonly weigh between 40 to 55 pounds, depending on how tightly they are packed.

square hay bale

Did you notice this square hay bale above has only one string? Yep, there should be two. A problem with the knotter inside the hay chute caused only one string to attach. This is definitely not a problem you want when in the middle of baling and racing the weather.

The bales that came out like this were a definite 2-person carry to and from the hay wagon. The bales that fell apart were dumped into a hay bing made out of 2X4 boards and hardware cloth, to feed or small livestock.

True square bales weight between 70 to 80 pounds.

Hay Square Baler At Work:

While it is more labor intensive to bale square and not round bales due to the typical need to give them some help getting out of the shoot and the manual labor required to hoist them up onto a wagon for transport, they are still favored by homesteaders and farmers who possess medium to large amounts of acreage and are feeding horses and smaller livestock.

baling string issue

The most common problem with hay balers involves twine knotting issues. If the baling string does not remain tight, the bale will separate – making it a massive pain to lift.

Square hay bales do not require a tractor or more than one person to either lift to store or to feed – unless they weigh close to 70 pounds or more. If you tractor goes down, a young teen to a healthy 60 year old can still manage to lift a square bale and tote it to a feeder.

Goats, sheep, and other medium livestock will not consume as much hay as cows or horses during the same time frame. So, many folks believe there is less hay waste when round bales are baled and fed to the animals.

Square bales are also far more portable, extremely important if you keep horses and go trail riding off your own property, or if need to pack up the homesteading retreat quickly and take feed for the livestock with you in an evacuation.

Hay Baling And Moisture Tips

• Hay bales can spontaneously combust. Ironically, it’s the bales that contain too high of a moisture content that typically go up in flames, and not the sun-baked dry bales. The high moisture causes a chemical reaction that increases heat build-up. If such a situation i is going to occur it generally happens within six weeks of stacking the baled hay.

• If the hay has in excess of a 22% moisture when it is stacked into the barn or closely together in rows outdoors, it will lose some of its forage quality – while increasing the chances of spontaneous combustion.

• Always attempt to bale hay when the moisture in the air is neither too low nor too high. Doing so can result in both nutrient loss and the fraying of leaves. Ideally, the moisture count should not be any higher than 15 to 22% for square bales and mini round bales, and less than 18% for large round bales.

hay bales loaded up it a trailer

Hay Baling Equipment

In addition to the actual hay baler, you will also need several other types of farm implements that attach to the tractor to get the job done.

Hay Mower

A sickle bar mower is the most common type of hay mower. They are readily available in a variety of different sizes. Large sickle bar mowers are also commonly referred to as “conditioners.” they are great for baling especially when doing round bales or working large acre tracts. Conditioners are exceptionally large and heavy, and usually exceed what a typical farm tractor can handle pulling.

Drum Mower

A drum mower is not powered via blades like a sickle bar mower, but by a gearbox. These types of mowers generally possess two drums and a large disc, with up to 4 free-moving blades attached to each disc.

Disc Mowers

This is a more advanced type of sickle bar mower. The blades on this piece of farm machinery are mounted on many small discs that swing both back and forth along the cutting bar. They are powered by either shafts or gears. The cutting bar can be adjusted to different heights and moves along slightly above the ground. Typically, disc mowers work well when cutting thick hay – especially if it is clumpy because it is a little too damp.

Brush Hog

A brush hog (also called a bush hog) tractor attachment is definitely not designed to be a hay mower, but can accomplish the same task reasonably well.

Hay Tedder

This farm implement is used to aerate the hay after it has been cut and before it is raked into windrows for baling. A hay tedder may be considered an optional part of the process, but is highly beneficial because it can help dry the hay completely and help reduce the chances of mildew growing in the bales once they are densely packed and stacked for storage.

hay tedder

Hay Rakes

A rake is used not only to help dry the hay by a lift and sift process, but also helps loosely pile the hay into windrows to prepare it for baling. The piles should not be large or tight, but baling cannot occur when the hay is spread out around the field like tossed leaves, either.

The windrows of hay should be rake at least twice, but preferably three times before it is baled to ensure the hay is thoroughly dried.

raking hay into windrows

Properly raked windrows should look something like this. They are thick enough for a baler to easily pick up without missing hay, but not so thick they will easily clog the machine.

Typically, it takes three days to cut and rake the hay properly before baling can occur. Watching the weather and crossing your fingers is a homesteading act that began in ancient times and continues to this day.

There are several different type of commonly available hay rakes:

• Rotary Rakes – They rake in a motion which more or less fluss up the hay and tends to work well with thick or damp hay.

• Wheel Rakes – This type of hay rake is perhaps the most popular on both small and medium farms. The simple machines are relatively easy to repair when it is necessary and are known to be incredibly. If you land is rocky, a wheel rake might cut too close to the ground and toss some gravel or small rocks into the windrows, as well.

• Belt Rakes – This style of rake also tends to work well on thick and damp cut hay, without cutting too close to the ground gravel or dirt can be tossed inside the windrows. They are lighter weight than a wheel rake and most models are designed to rake larger than the common 10-foot-wide area.

girl in trailer on top of hay bales

It helps to have as many hands a possible around when baling hay – this is definitely not a one or two person job if you want to get the hay cut, raked, baled, loaded, and stored before the weather changes. On our survival homesteading retreat, both men and women from teens to folks in their mid-60s work together to get the hay in during the two annual cuttings. Without fail, at least one person will wipe their sweaty brow when it is all over and say, “That is the toughest workout I have since high school or leaving the military.”

hale bay coming out of the square baler

On a square baler, one bale of hay comes out of the shoot after a mechanical mechanism cut the string and immediately begins binding the baling string around the next bale.

In a perfect world, no one would have to walk behind the baler to make sure the completed bale falls out as they should, but unfortunately we don’t, so we’re often using aging or new-to-us equipment that demands some human attention while in action.

Each tractor and hay baler work basically the same way, but not all balers are suited for all tractors:

You do not necessarily have to use the same brand of hay baling equipment as your tractor, but the type of hitch, load maximums, and hydraulic requirements will dictate what farm implements will attach AND function properly with your tractor.

How To Bale Hay

1. Check the weather forecast and plan the process when at least three days of no rain and low humidity is forecast.

2. Cut the hay after double checking humidity levels. Match the height of the deck of the cutter to the ground’s contour – this may mean making adjustments if the hay field is not level throughout. It is not difficult to cut hay in a rolling pasture, but the setting on the hay mower must be adjusted accordingly every time the terrain changes.

3. The day after the hay is cut it is time to start raking. It typically takes two passes around the hay field to fully sift the hay cuttings and loosely pile them. This is why raking three times (weather permitting) is recommended.

4. Now the real work begins, baling the hay. This is long, hot, and hard work – even if you are using a tractor to pick up each round and put it on a wagon for hauling.

It always make the baling and loading process go more quickly if the hay wagon can be pulled nearly alongside the tractor pulling the hay baler so the completed bales can be tossed up for transport as soon as they are ready.

Keep the hay baling chamber on the machine as full as possible – but not overly stuffed. When the baler receives too much hay too quickly, jams will occur. When you get a jam, shut down the tractor as quickly as possible and remove the hay – which may be either too thick or too damp…or both.

cleaning a jammed hay baler

Reaching in with your hand and pulling out excess hay might clear the jam, but more often than not, having one person climb into the front end and perhaps even another inside the chute, will be required to remove the jam.

unclogging a hay baler

Both Adam (shown in the hay chute) and James (hidden from view inside the hay collection area) are working their way to the opening between the two parts of the square hay baler to remove clogged hay that stopped the bale formation process.

Hay Baler Jam Clearing Video – Frustrated and Overheated Men at Work, I am sorry in advance for any foul language:

Even a seemingly small hay clog can take about 30 minutes to remove, delaying the hay baling process while daylight burns away or storm clouds are moving in – another reason why raking a third time to prevent damp or clumpy hay, is so very important.

Hay Baling Tips

If you get overly anxious and cut your hay too early, when it is just barely tall enough to cut, the bale yield can be substantially decreased.

If you wait too long to cut or attempt to get in a third cut that is not quite ready, you can wind up with hay that is devoid of the beneficial nutrients the livestock will need to remain strong and healthy during the winter.

Cutting hay past the recommended season, which may mean even early September through October, can cause you to not only end up with bales that contain far too much moisture, but will not dry thoroughly and cause mildew to grow – and possibly cause frequent clogging and baler damage in the process.

Once the hay is baled, it must be transported either onto a hay wagon or truck to reach its storage area. The further it has to be driven the rougher the terrain, the more wear and tear there will be on the bales. Loose bales often fall apart during transport of while being unloaded from the wagon for storage.

When the last wagonload of hay is making its way to the barn, your exhausted work crew will usually hoot and holler with excitement in spite of being tired, dirty, and very sweaty. Best hay baling tip I can offer – have food and cold drinks waiting for the hay baling crew so they come back again the next time your fields are ready!

transporting hay to the barn with a bandwagon


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Tara Dodrill
About Tara Dodrill 167 Articles
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day. her homesteading skills are unmatched, she raises chickens, goats, horses, a wide variety of vegetables, not to mention she's an expert is all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping and many, many more.


  1. I’d like to add several points;
    1. For a small investment, you should be able to get a chute extension that would allow you to pull a wagon behind the baler, and the bales to be deposited on the front of the wagon. Makes much easier stacking. Also, it only requires two to square bale; one to drive the tractor and one to stack the hay.

    2. Busted bales (no string, broken knot, busted string) can be broken into flakes and the flakes distributed onto the windrows for rebaling.

    3. When I bale, I stack from back to front of the wagon, 4 vertical rows that somewhat interlock, total of 20 bales, and then a cap row of 4 bales that hold the whole thing together.

    Good article. Lots of good info. And you are right, baling hay was the hardest thing that I had to get used to when I moved from the city to the farm at age 52. I never worked so hard in my life.


    • RayK,

      Thank you for sharing your expect tips! We just finished another weekend of working on hay while harvesting and preserving the garden, AND starting to put up firewood, my sore muscles are begging for summer to be over already, but my 95 degrees in the shade loving soul isn’t ready to let go of summer quite yet, lol!

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