by Haley Ruffner
20 April 2023 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628
As anyone with horses or livestock knows, there are several factors that determine the quality of hay and its value to us: maturity at baling, type of hay, region in which it was grown, nutritional tests, cost (both of the hay itself and freight if it’s not from a local source), bale size, cutting, and leaf retention. One thing we don’t often think about is the technology used in baling it.
Hay steamers are the newest agricultural technology spreading throughout the arid Western states. They attach to balers and inject steam into hay as it’s being baled to bring it to the perfect moisture level. The feat of maintaining ideal moisture is nearly impossible when relying on natural moisture like dew, especially in large-scale operations where there is so much hay to bale that dew levels fluctuate tremendously during baling from one end of the field to the other. This process allows for the most consistent hay possible and has a multitude of benefits, but there is very little information readily available to consumers.
An online search of “steamed hay” will pull up Haygain hay steamers, an increasingly popular product for horse owners to remedy musty hay, increase horses’ water intake, or mitigate respiratory problems by steaming a bale of hay before feeding. While this technology is popular for good reason, with many online testimonials swearing by its benefits, the online resources for this type of hay steamer overshadow available information for hay steaming on the production side.
The more knowledgeable you are about the production of the hay you’re buying, the better you will be able to accurately determine the quality and benefits it will have to your feeding program. In comparing two alfalfa options from the same region that were cut in the same stage and grown in similar conditions, if one option is steamed you can expect the following differences:
Better leaf retention
Leaf retention is one of the biggest determining factors in the quality of alfalfa—much of its protein is stored in the leaves, so if it was baled too dry and the leaf either falls off in the field or shatters during feeding, your animals won’t get nearly as much protein. When hay is steam baled, it is baled at an ideal moisture, which keeps the leaves soft and intact. This process also allows the bales and flakes to be compressed more due to the softening effect of the added steam, which further protects the leaves. Staheli West, creator of the DewPoint Hay Steamer, claims that steamed hay reduces leaf loss during baling by upwards of 50% compared to baling at night with optimal natural dew.
Many farmers in the West try to bale throughout the night to capture dew in the windrows for added moisture, but this method cannot guarantee consistent moisture. Dew levels fluctuate so much that even if the first bales in the field are made at an ideal moisture level, hay in the very same field that was baled even a few hours afterward may turn out to be significantly drier. Many farms are also limited in this practice by sheer size—it’s a race to bale all of their fields with an adequate amount of dew, requiring extra labor and machinery to get their hay put up before the dew burns off. A machine going down or a worker calling out sick could result in an entire field being put up too dry.
With steam baling, however, the level of steam applied can be adjusted to account for dew or lack thereof, and can also be applied to the top or bottom of the windrow as needed. This process guarantees consistency throughout the farmer’s products. Even if part of the field is baled in the predawn hours with maximum dew and the rest is baled after sunrise once the dew is burned off, the resulting hay will have consistent quality throughout. Steam does not behave the same way as water—according to Staheli West, “Combine the heat and vapor from steam, and you get a moisture medium that is optimal for penetrating the hay and softening it.” Steaming also results in more consistent bale weights and flakes per bale due to the precise monitoring of moisture levels.
Ease of feeding
While there is a lot of research showing that feeding horses on the ground is the healthiest option—it reduces risk of colic, choke, and respiratory issues and helps horses better absorb nutrients—many people still use hay feeders of one kind or another to try to reduce waste, especially with hay prices on the rise. Feeders can help contain leaf matter that falls out of flakes and prevents it from being mixed into a horse’s bedding or blown away. However, with steamed hay, the flakes hold together so much better that there is much less waste even if fed on the ground. You won’t pick up a flake and immediately lose all of the leaf onto the ground. Even in windy areas where ranchers feed their animals outside, steamed hay won’t fall apart and blow away like dry hay can.
The increased leaf retention and softer stems also makes steamed hay more palatable for horses and cattle, which decreases waste because they are less likely to pick through it and leave pieces behind. These properties also make steamed hay a good alternative for hay cubes or pellets. Most people choose cubes or pellets over hay because they’re a more consistent product and are usually soaked to make them softer and more digestible. Since steamed hay is generally softer and more consistent than regular hay, it will work as a better alternative to feeding just cubes or pellets. Feeding hay that horses can graze on throughout the day is also preferable to feeding cubes or pellets in that it more closely mimics horses’ natural grazing schedules and will decrease the likelihood of ulcers.
Effectiveness in various products
Although much of the conversation regarding steam baling is centered around alfalfa, farmers are increasingly finding that steam baling grass hay and straw has worthwhile benefits as well. Steamed straw is fast becoming a popular product due to its lack of dust, flakes that hold together better, and stems that are less brittle and thus won’t break down as quickly. Buyers who use straw in their breeding operations prefer steamed straw because it seems to cause fewer respiratory issues due to the lower dust content. The softness and extra compression steamed bales have also allow for better value since bales are heavier and more volume can fit on a truckload. A bale that, unsteamed, might be around 7 cubic feet of bedding will be closer to 10 cubic feet in a steamed bale.
Farmers are also beginning to steam their grass hay more, which has potential to make first cut grasses, which are generally regarded as less palatable than a second or third cut, softer and more desirable to customers. Since nutritional value is highest in first cut, making it more palatable and easily digestible for older horses will give customers the option to get grass hay that has the best nutritional value and will also appeal to their horses that otherwise would require later cuttings.
Steam baling hay is quickly becoming more and more of a standard practice throughout the West, and in many cases is not marketed any differently despite its benefits. Asking your Western hay supplier about steamed hay is a great way to make sure you’re getting the best value and consistency.
Haley Ruffner is a sales broker for Aden Brook, a lifelong equestrian, and an accomplished writer.