It’s getting hot in here! A newbie’s guide to hay combustion

The other day as he was leaving for work, Sheldon made an offhand comment about keeping an eye on the hay so the heat doesn’t build up.  When I must have given him my usual whatyoutalkinboutwillis face, he told me that hay can spontaneously combust.  While I was able to keep my facial composure, I cannot tell a lie that in my head I immediately thought that he must be smokin banana peels and that was just another crazy thought from his sometimes paranoid mind.

Except, he was right.  Kinda….

Now, our hay hasn’t combusted since I had my smart arse thoughts.  As far as I know, it’s still minding it’s own business in the barn awaiting the day that our cows/Festus will convert it to poop.  However, being the Bing-er that I am, I had to get online and see what the deal is.   From what I could research on a couple of sites (including this excellent one from WSU), hay isn’t going to spontaneously combust just ’cause you talk ugly to it.  A variety of factors need to build up including heat, moisture (ironic, no?) and bacteria.  Obviously this isn’t going to happen overnight.  But if you have packed your barn tight with hay with limited air passage around your bales, you may find that you have created the kind of environment where moisture and heat can get easily trapped.  So, what’s a newb to do?

Well, think about foundation/stacking.  Most of our bales are small squares that one adult can easily pick up.  We also have some large round bales that we got from a neighbor, but they aren’t a huge concern.  We are planning to use those first just to get them out.  For the rest of our bales,  we have created stacks of hay that are loose-ish.  That is, they are strong enough that our 5 year old can stand on a stack, but not tight enough that I would trust her (or us) up there alone.  This allows air to pass through and reduces the chance for moisture build up.  In addition, we have stacked our bales up off the ground.  While our barn is solidly built, our floor is dirt meaning that moisture will seep up with anything that is in direct contact with the ground.  Some freecycled pallets worked well as our foundation to get the bales off the ground.

You also want to decide to cover/not to cover.  Sure, any rains that you get could eventually get dried by the sun but what are you losing in that process?  Not only are you increasing your chances of more moisture, more bacteria=greater risk for combustion, but you are also junking up your hay.  Remember, unless you are using this hay as bedding for animals, you need to be mindful of protein content.   If you don’t want to be running to the feed store once a week to feed your cows/donkeys, you need to make sure that the hay you supply is still a good source of protein for your animals.   A study by the University of Minnesota West Central Experiment Station at Morris, Minnesota has some great information on hay storage and the resulting effects of protein loss based on storage method.

So, while I’m not saying that we have figured it out in terms of hay production and storage (Ha!  We’re a long way from there)  but, I do feel better having spent the time to do some research so that I feel confident about how we are protecting this investment.  Look forward to hearing from anyone who has even more info to share!  Happy Haying!

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