Round Hay Bales: Why They’re Round, Uses, and Cost

Round Hay Bales 101 

Chances are, if you live near any farmland or ranchland, you are familiar with the giant round hay bales that seem to be sprinkled across the empty fields. You may have found yourself wondering what they are doing there and why they are round instead of the square bales that many of us associate with hay.

Why are some hay bales round? Round hay bales have some advantages over smaller square bales for larger operations because they are more moisture-resistant and require less manual labor to stack and transport. Round hay bales vary greatly in size, but the largest of them can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can measure up to eight feet tall.

Round hay bales aren’t for everyone, but there are several reasons that larger ranches find them to be more economical and convenient. 

The Advantages Of Round Hay Bales

There are several reasons that some farmers and ranchers prefer their hay bales in the shape of a cylinder. The shape and size of these round hay bales tend to make them more efficient in both time and money.

  • Round hay bales are moisture-resistant: The cylinder shape of these bales allows them to more easily maintain a dry interior due to the smaller percentage of surface area exposed to the elements and the fact that they are packed so densely. Moisture (and thus, mold) is a serious problem with hay and can result in the loss of thousands of dollars worth of feed.
  • Round bales last longer: Round bales last longer than square bales because they are so much larger. Round bales can hold as much as twenty times the amount of hay as square bales. Their moisture resistance also allows for a longer shelf life because of both the inhibited mold growth and the natural fermentation at the core of the bale.
  • Round hay bales dry faster: Because they are so densely packed compared to square bales, they take much less time to dry, meaning they can be processed and moved more quickly than smaller bales. 
  • Round bales are easier to transport: If you have the equipment to move round bales, they are much more convenient to stack and transport than square bales. If you need to move 1,500 pounds of hay, you can do it by mechanically picking up one round bale instead of manually moving fifteen to twenty square bales (and yes, you can also move square bales with equipment, but this still requires patience and time in lifting and placing several smaller bales as opposed to one large one).


The Size And Cost Of Round Bales

Round bales are significantly larger than the square bales you will find at the feed store. As mentioned above, a single round bale can hold as much hay as fifteen to twenty (large) square bales!

This means that you’re going to need either a tractor or a forklift to move them around. The size of these round bales varies greatly, but most of them fall between 800 and 1,500 pounds.

In terms of dimensions, this usually comes out to about 5’ tall by 4’ in diameter. For comparison’s sake, square bales will weigh anywhere between 60 and 120 pounds (and if you’ve ever moved a square bale by hand, you know how heavy even these “small” bales can feel). 

Because round bales can hold as much hay as twenty square bales, you may expect them to cost twenty times more. This isn’t true, however, and is yet another advantage of purchasing hay by the round bale instead of the square. On average, a square bale of hay can cost around $12. A round bale, however, goes for around $75-$120, depending on the type of hay and the time of the cut. This means that in most circumstances, you can get a round bale of hay for the same cost as around five or six square bales. 

Why Do You See Round Bales Sitting In Empty Fields?

When you drive through farmland, you may see cylinders of hay sprinkled throughout the landscape. If you see them placed throughout a field but no horses or other animals, then you are looking at a hay field.

We are deep in hay harvesting season right now, and I find it oddly satisfying to see these freshly harvested round bales dotting the landscape – both the smell and the sight of these bales are somehow nostalgic for me. But if you don’t see any balers or farmers out there with the hay, you may wonder why it’s all just sitting there.

The most likely reason hay is left sitting in the field is that the farmer hasn’t yet had a chance to come by to pick it up. Harvesting hay is a lot of work and takes a lot of time. The farmer decides the dimensions he wants his finished round bale to be and inputs these pre-sets into the baling machine.

The baling machine then considers the bale to be finished when it reaches the appropriate dimensions, ties it, and drops it where it is before advancing to the next bale. Once the baling is complete, a farmer may not have the pick-up and transport of the hay on his schedule for a few days or even weeks. 

Aside from scheduling concerns, a farmer may leave the hay in the field until more storage opens up. There may be a batch of hay in the storage barn already that must be sold or transported elsewhere before the new batch can be stacked. This is also very common – no farm or ranch has unlimited storage capacity.

Finally, some farmers choose to leave their hay out for a few weeks at a time to allow it to further dry before stacking and storing it. One of the concerns with doing this, however, is the ground beneath the hay. Each bale will weigh up to a thousand (or more) pounds, which can significantly affect the ground beneath the bale if left too long. 

Round bales vs square bales

When Round Bales Are Not The Right Choice

With all of the advantages listed of round bales, you may be wondering why anyone would choose the smaller square bales at all. While you may be thinking square bales are inferior, there are several circumstances in which they make more sense over round bales. 

  • Square bales may be better for smaller operations – if you have a homestead with a handful of goats or sheep, it would not make sense to purchase hay by the round bale. I have a friend with six goats on pasture who need supplemental hay during the off-season – two square bales can last them a month, depending on the season. There would be no advantage to buying a round bale of hay for these goats because, despite its longevity, most of it would end up being wasted. 
  • Square bales may be easier to store – if you have very limited storage space available, square bales may be the way to go. Hay should be stored in a dry location to preserve its shelf life. If left out in the rain, it can more easily mold and if that happens, it needs to be discarded. If you don’t have enough space to store 1,000-pound bales of hay, smaller square stacks will be more manageable. 
  • Square bales do not require equipment to move – I used to have the pleasure of taking care of the horses at the local lesson barn. It was most often the instructors (or their teenage helpers) who would feed the horses. There were no forklifts or tractors to use when moving hay around, and if there were, there would be no one to operate them. We would put a couple of square bales in the golf cart (outfitted with a scale) and drive it around to Uber the horses their dinner. 


Round Hay Bales Are The Economical Choice For Some Operations

Almost all of the advantages of round hay bales can be “rolled” into one category, and that is economics. Round bales cost less money per pound than square bales, making them a solid investment for an operation that requires a lot of hay every year. They are also more resistant to moisture and have a natural fermentation process at the center, allowing for less waste and increased longevity. Less wasted hay equals less wasted money.

Finally, round bales require less manpower and fewer hours in stacking (assuming one has the equipment to do so) than do square bales. As we all know, time equals money, and when a farmer can save time in stacking hay, he can spend it doing the many other things that need to be done. 

So though not everyone will need to (or even should) purchase hay by the round bale, in specific circumstances, it wouldn’t make sense to do otherwise. Fortunately, both round and square bales are readily available in most areas, so everyone can purchase hay in the form that makes the most sense to them. I tend to buy square bales for my horses, as this makes the most sense for my operation. 

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