A Monroe farmer loads hay bales onto a trailer while working in a field in 2009. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

As far as livestock are concerned, there is no right answer when it comes to choosing round or square hay bales on a homestead. They will happily munch on baled hay and feed regardless of its shape.

For a homesteader or farmer, however, this seemingly innocuous decision between round or square-shaped bales at haying time is an important one that can have repercussions if the wrong choice is made.

The most important consideration is the number of animals you are feeding. If you have a lot of livestock, it can make economic sense to go with the larger, round bales. Larger operations also tend to have the equipment necessary to deal with round bales.

Smaller homesteads can do well with the square bales, according to Richard Kersbergen, sustainable dairy and forage systems professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. They are easier to transport and store if space is a consideration.

Pound for pound, square bales may cost more than a round bale, but they are less likely to go to waste on smaller farms and homesteads.

One of the attractions of round bales is the mistaken belief that their shape protects them from the elements so they can be stored outside. Round bales left outside, uncovered, can lose 10 to 25 percent of their nutritional value, Kersbergen said.

“It can come down to how you are going to store the hay,” said Kersbergen. “If you are going to store it inside and you put it up correctly, the nutritive value of a round or square bale will be the same.”

Simply put, hay is grass, legumes or other herbaceous plants that are harvested, dried and compressed into bales for livestock feed. It’s most often cut while still green and allowed to dry in the field before it’s baled up. Typical hay crops are timothy, alfalfa and clover.

Kersbergen understands the temptation to store round bales outside close to where livestock will feed. A typical round bale can weigh up to 750 pounds, making it difficult to move around.

“On a small homestead it can be a challenge to roll that round bale around if you don’t have the right equipment,” he said. “Moving and breaking up square bales of hay that weigh around 45 pounds is a lot easier.”

But square-baling hay is more difficult when it comes to harvesting. Once the hay has been cut and dried in the field, a tractor-driven baler comes along, scoops it up and forms it into squares. Then, depending on the baler, it either shoots it out directly onto a trailer or leaves it on the ground. Either way, manual labor is needed to stack it properly onto a trailer to get it back to the barn.

A round baler also collects the hay in the field. But from start to finish, it’s a purely mechanical operation. The baler rolls and ties the hay and leaves it in the field. The bales are collected by tractors outfitted with forklift-like tines to lift the bales onto trailers for transport.

Round baling might be less labor intensive, but it’s important to let the hay dry a bit longer than it would need for square bales.

“The density of the round bales is much greater than squares,” Kersbergen said. “So any excess moisture in the rounds will create a mold issue because the bales don’t ventilate as easily.”

Moldy hay can contain dangerous toxins that can make both livestock and humans sick if inhaled or consumed.

Another consideration is the outer texture of the hay.

“When you put up a square bale there is a knife that cuts the edges so a lot of times there are sharp edges on the bale,” Kersbergen said, “Round bales are more tumbled so there are no sharp edges and that could make a bit of a difference if your animals get hit by the pokey bits.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.