What is a Hay Bale and What is it Made From?

While driving across the country, you’ve maybe seen big round or rectangular bales. You’ve maybe wondered what they are, what their purpose is, and what they’re made out of. If so, you’ve come to the right place!

Hay is a very commonly misunderstood agricultural product. It’s easily confused with straw, and most people never really interact with it. So, what is it?

Hay is a feed source for ruminant animals (think cows, goats, and sheep). It’s entirely made from plants, and is cut or mowed multiple times a year. Hay ground, or a hay field, may be seeded with a mixture of alfalfa, clover, timothy, ryegrass, fescue, or other grasses and legumes.

That seems pretty simple, right? In theory! There’s actually a lot to hay production, and it can get pretty scientific.

First of all, nutrition is very important in hay production. For ruminant animals, forages (like hay) need to be a large part of their diet to keep them healthy. Too much grains (like corn and soybeans) can offset the balances in their digestive system and lead to rumen acidosis, which can cause death if not caught soon enough. However, this is also tricky, because ruminant animals like cattle that are raised for meat grow faster and more efficiently when they have access to those same grains. In the end, the farmer is responsible for making sure their animals have the correct balance of grains, forages, and other feed additives to keep their animals the healthiest and most efficient they can be.

So hay is a very important part of a healthy cow’s diet. But not all hay is made equal. Ruminant animals are great at digesting plant materials, but some plants and some plant parts are harder than others to digest. Plant materials with lots of cellulose or lignin are the hardest to digest. These are plant parts with very tough, rigid cell wells. Think about tree bark, bamboo, or a dry cornstalk – these are all very tough and have lots of cellulose. A ruminant animal could probably eat some of these, but they won’t be a very efficient part of their diet.

Alternatively, nice, soft, leafy green parts of plants are much easier to digest. This also means that younger plants are easier to digest. A farmer may have to pay attention to how fast the grass grows so that the hay is cut and baled before the grass gets too tall, too tough, or has too many seed heads that the cattle won’t want to eat. Leguminous plants, like alfalfa, clover, and birdsfoot trefoil, are also a highly nutritious and leafy part of a good forage mix.

Bale wrapped with twine. (Source: MakinHay.com)

This is a key difference between hay and straw. Hay should be green, leafy, and smell good. Straw is mostly the stems of oats, wheat, or another cereal crop, and is a golden color. Straw is mainly used for bedding.

When hay is cut, it is baled. It is baled so it can be transported and stored easier. The bales can be held together with twine, wire, netting, or even plastic wrap. If you see large, round bales of hay that are a solid color, like black or white, that farmer chose to wrap their bales with the solid plastic wrap. Different farmers have different priorities that can impact the decision of what they choose to bind their bales with.

Bales can also come in different shapes. Hay bales you see in pastures along the interstate are probably the large round bales. Bales you see used for seating at events or on a hayrack ride are probably the smaller rectangular bales (usually called square bales by agriculturalists). Size of farm operation, equipment available, and storage facilities available can all help a farmer choose which type of bale to use.

In conclusion: hay bales are a feed source for ruminant animals made from a variety of forage crops. This is not to be confused with straw, which is not as nutritious and is instead used as bedding for livestock. The big, round, marshmallow-looking shapes that dot the countryside aren’t just there for fun – they’re there for food!

Hey, what other questions do you have about hay?


One thought on “What is a Hay Bale and What is it Made From?

  1. Pingback: What is a Hay Bale and What is it Made From? — Iowa Agriculture Literacy | Vermont Folk Troth

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