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Watch That Hay!

Hay sheds are empty, the ground is wet, the crops are heavy and the weather is dodgy. This year, conditions are rife for haystack fires!

Anyone making hay must make sure that hay is dry and properly cured before baling. The consequences of not doing so can be high. At best, damp hay will become mouldy which can cause animal health problems. At worst, damp hay can heat and spontaneously combust, burning the haystack, the shed and potentially the whole district.

Hay curing will be very slow this year. Moisture in the soil, heavy crops and cool, damp weather will mean that cut hay will need to lie on the ground for an extended period. Therefore, there is a high chance of hay getting wet before it is baled.

Conditioning hay can significantly reduce curing time. However, if conditioned hay gets wet, it will soak up rain like a sponge. All hay that has had rain on it needs to be properly dried before baling, right to the centre of the straw and to the bottom of the windrow.

So how can we reduce the risk?
•  Consider making silage. Decide early though, as it is an expensive process and late cutting will make a poor product. Silage is best cut before seed heads emerge.

•  Some glyphosate products are now registered for use on hay. Spraying before cutting will reduce or eliminate the problem of regrowth being plucked off by the rake or baler and being blended in with the cut hay (this can raise the moisture content of the hay significantly). Spraying has the additional benefit of stopping seed set. Obviously, this is not for use on permanent pasture or where the regrowth is required for grazing.

•  Resist the temptation to bale to “beat the rain”. If it’s not ready, it’s not ready!

•  Ensure hay is dry right through before baling. Hay should “rattle” when handled. Watch out for damp patches on corners where the rake may not have turned the windrow properly.

•  Monitor suspect bales carefully. Bales that sag, heat quickly or are heavier than they should be must not be stacked!

•  If you are not confident that your round bales are stackable, you may be able to row them in the paddock. Leaving small gaps between each bale rather than shoving them up tightly will allow the bales to breathe and dissipate heat without the ends of the bales being weather damaged.

•  Large square bales that have had a significant amount of rain on them are virtually impossible to dry and must not be stacked.

•  Small square bales that are suspect should only be stacked in low, loose stacks and monitored frequently. Pull bales out if they start to heat.

•  Hay that is going to burn will usually do so within six weeks. Monitor for at least two months to be sure.

•  Reduce or eliminate fine fuels (grass) from around hay stacks. Bare gravel is preferred. If the worst happens it is better to contain a fire to the stack.

If these tips are followed, hay fires should be avoided, but there are no guarantees. Hay making is an art and a science. Just another example of farming not being as easy as it looks!