Using and Feeding Round Bales to Horses

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hay is a good and, usually, an inexpensive source of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals for the horse. The mature horse will consume at least 2% of its body weight in dry matter daily. In nature, almost all of the mature horse’s nutrient requirements can be met by roughage in the form of hay. Regardless of the package type, e.g., small squares, round bales, etc., the most important considerations when buying hay are:

  • The quality of the hay, e.g., dust free (from molds), a crude protein content of 12-14% on a dry matter basis, a calcium to phosphorus ratio (Ca:P) of approximately 2:1 for growing horses (mature horses Ca:P ratio < 5:1).
  • Freedom from noxious weeds (e.g., bracken fern, horsetail) and plants that horses won’t eat (e.g., Bird’s-foot trefoil).
  • The price per pound or kilogram.
  • The package size. Can you physically handle small square bales ranging in weight from 35-60 lbs. or round bales and round bale silage ranging from 500 to 1600 lbs.?
  • Do you have the equipment that can handle large bales in winter with the additional problems created by snow?

When feeding a group of horses, hay costs become considerable and alternative package sizes, such as large round bales, may be especially useful and cost effective when combined with the appropriate feeders. For example, when feeding a group of six adult horses, the use of 4′ x 5′ soft-core round bales can result in savings over the use of traditional square bales. The cost savings come from: reduced labour, both during the initial haying season and during the feeding period; reduced storage costs (large bale storage is often cheaper than storage for small bales); and reduced costs of the actual dry matter on a cents-per-pound basis.

Let us see how tangible these savings really are by calculating the roughage costs for feeding a group of six horses:

  • An 1100-lb. horse consuming 2% of its body weight will consume 22 lbs. of dry matter or roughly 24 lbs. of hay on an as-fed basisĀ (1100-lb. horse x 2% body weight = 22 lbs. of hay/horse/day on a dry matter basis. Hay is roughly 90% dry matter. Therefore, another 10% should be added, resulting in approximately 24.4 lbs. of hay being consumed per horse per day on an as-fed weight basis).
  • Six horses will consume approximately 6 x 24.4 or 146.4 lbs. of hay per day.
  • When hay is priced at $0.05/lb. (on an as-fed basis), a 4′ x 5′ mixed hay round bale providing 565 lbs. of hay (see Table 1) costs approximately $28. This bale should last approximately 4 days, baring any losses and would cost $7.00 per day to feed six horses.
  • To feed the same group of six horses, 3 square bales per day (weighing 48 lbs. per bale) would be required. At a cost of $2.50 per bale, the cost would be $7.50 per day.

Use local costs to calculate this comparison for your area. In many areas, and depending on the harvest year, the cost of hay in round bales on a cents/lb. basis is often significantly less than that sold in small square bales. At these times, feeding round bales can be more cost effective. However, when the cost of hay on a per pound basis is the same regardless of package type and size (round versus small), the economic advantage of using round bales will be based primarily on labor saving.

These savings can easily be diminished if losses from controllable factors, such as storage and the use of feeders, are not implemented. In fact, round-bale feeding can be more expensive than the feeding of small square bales. Storage of large round bales outside, exposed to the elements, results in dry-matter losses of 15-20% more than hay stored inside. Hay loss is attributed to outer-layer losses from weathering and to pulling of ground moisture into the base of the bale by wick action. To understand this loss all one has to do is to visualize spoilage of the mere outer 3″ of a 4′-diameter bale. This will result in a 25% loss of suitable feed. In addition, improperly stored hay is often dusty and can cause health concerns in horses.

To prevent spoilage losses, round bales can be stored inside a barn or outside covered with black plastic or bale tarps; in either case, they must be raised off the ground. This will prevent both spoilage and loss of nutrients. The absorption of ground moisture can easily double the amount of outer-layer losses. The use of rails, poles or pallets will minimize spoilage from ground moisture.

Table 1: How Much Hay is in a Round Bale? (prepared by Daniel Tasse, OMAF) Estimates of the weights based on a soft-core baler (add 20% for a hard core)

Feeding hay on the ground can account for a further 25% loss, from leaf loss as well as spoilage due to contamination (i.e. urine and manure) and trampling by horses. Therefore, it is advised to use hay feeders such as a “V” feeder with a tray to catch the leaves (Figure 1) or a round-bale feeder (Figure 2).

The proper storage and use of round bales can account for a 50% saving, which translates into half the number of bales needed. Table 2 gives a cost comparison for various storage and feeding methods.

Table 2: A Cost Comparison of Various Feeding Methods.

The theoretical calculations are based on:

  • A 220-day winter feeding period for 6 horses requiring 32,208 lbs. of hay with no dry matter losses.
  • The required nutrients could be supplied, if there were no feeding or storage losses, either as 57 – 4′ x 5′, 565-lb. round bales (cost of $28 each) or as 671 48-lb. square bales (cost of $2.50 each).
  • Losses, as indicated above, will require an increase in hay and added costs.
  • *The calculations indicate that 57 bales are required but 50% of the dry matter would be lost resulting in 28.5 additional bales being required but 50% of the 28.5 would also be lost for a total requirement of 99.75.

Take Home Message

  • Purchase hay on a cents-per-pound basis.
  • Round bale feeders are labor saving but can be dusty and costly if storage and feeding damage/losses are not minimized.
  • The feeding of horses starts with buying good hay, storing it properly and feeding to minimize leaf losses.
  • The cost of feeders and suitable storage protection can easily be recouped over a couple of winters, even when hay prices are relatively low.


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