Are giant round hay bales the best way to feed hay to horses?
In some parts of the nation, hay bales only come one way - shipped on a big truck in the three string variety. I am quickly learning that other parts of the land (not entrenched in a horrible drought), can actually grow their own hay and may even have a surplus of it. So much so, that round bales are seemingly more common than square bales. Driving through the countryside on the east coast I am bombarded with field after field of hay. Some corn and soybean, too, but a lot of hay. I’m getting fairly good at guessing when they will cut, too, it’s largely weather dependent.
I have also seen a sight that has made me fairly horrified. Numerous pastures, with giant, floppy, gray round hay bales in the middle. Well, that part is mostly fine, but then it rains cats and dog and those round bales get WET. And the horses are still eating them! And no one is dying!! Of course I have always cautioned against feeding hay that could mold or hay that’s left outside or hay that is some combo of both. And here I stand corrected (well, mostly).
My morning trip to the barn inludes dozens of fields of hay.
In doing some investigation, I learned that a round bale, left in the sun and weather and rain, will make a kind of “hay hat” that covers the rest of the round bale. It’s similar to a thatched roof. Luckily, this “hay hat” will protect the hay inside. Because horses eat the bales from the sides inwards, the “hay hat” does it’s thing. Mostly, but more on that later.
But is this the BEST way to feed hay? Round bales are super and amazing for the following reasons:
- Super bang for your buck. Lots of hay, at a better price than most square bales of hay.
- You can get to know your farmer! Round bales are typically local - so you can get to know the quality of the hay as you get to know your hay bailing neighbors.
- Easy to feed. They are self feeding - just park ‘em and watch them get eaten down.
- No need to schlep out to the barn three times a day (or more) for multiple feedings.
- You can even get slow feeder nets for a round bale!
- Great to feed a group of horses, the bales are large enough that everyone can share. Ideally the bale is shared amongst enough horses that it only lasts a few days or a week.
- They can store very easily (and be eaten very easily) when they are kept out of the weather.
One style of round bale feeder, my horses would say "How many ways can I get stuck in this?"
Round bales are NOT super and amazing for the following reasons:
- The protective “hay hat” will harbor molds, which can harm your horse’s respiratory and digestive tracts. Most horses are smart enough to avoid eating moldy hay, but if they are sticking their heads into a bale of hay with mold, it will be inhaled.
- The “hay hat” also creates a load of heat - which will decrease the nutrients in the hay that are available to your horse.
- When the “hay hat” collapses, your horse may decide he will eat the moldy stuff if he has no other source of forage. This is a BAD idea and may even cause colic, heaves, organ failure and death.
- You need heavy machinery to move round hay bales around the farm.
- The waste factor is much larger than feeding flakes from a square bale.
- The nutritional value is typically less due to heat and exposure to the elements.
- The round bale holders, usually designed for cattle, can trap and injure your horse.
- The ground surrounding the round hay bale will be trampled and most likely a mud pit.
- Botulism is a risk. Many veterinarians suggest vaccinations. More on botulism here!
This round bale is taller than my 6 ft husband! Other round bales are smaller, topping out at about 3 ft tall.
I would rather truck myself out to the barn to feed fresh hay three times a day than run the risk of my horse eating moldy hay. I’m also not sure the cost savings are all that great when you factor in waste and lost nutritional value, UNLESS you can put the round bale in a covered area and still have room for all of the horses to reach it, and not be stuck in a corner. What do you think?