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Feeding horses with a round-bale feeder

Quick facts

  • Round-bale feeder design affects waste and costs, but not safety, hay intake or herd weight in horses.
  • Feeding your horse round bales without a feeder can result in:
    • 57 percent wasted hay
    • Weight loss
    • Reduced hay intake
  • Storage can cause 2 to 40 percent hay waste depending on the forage type, storage method, environment and length of storage.
  • Covering round bales with plastic can reduce waste by half when storing bales outside.
  • However, hay waste occurs during feeding and storing of round bales. Using a feeder and properly storing round bales can help reduce your hay waste.

Selecting a round-bale feeder for your horse

Horses eating from round bale feeder

University of Minnesota researchers evaluated the effect of round-bale feeder design on: 

  • Hay waste
  • Horse safety
  • Hay intake and weight changes of horses
  • Cost

Feeder designs

In general, the feeder designs we evaluated either restricted access to hay or allowed more free access to hay.

Feeder designs that restrict access to hay

Click photos to enlarge and see brand name.

Feeder designs that allow greater access to hay

Click photos to enlarge and see brand name.

Hay waste, hay intake, weight change and payback of nine round‐bale feeders and a control*

Feeder type Hay waste, % Hay intake, % BW Herd weight change, pounds Payback ($100/t), months
Waste Less 5a 2.3a 70a 8e
Cinch Net 6ab 2.4a 183a 0.8a
Hayhut 9bc 2.3a -7ab 4c
Covered Cradle 11c 2.4a 55a 20f
Tombstone Saver 13cd 2.2a -35ab 4cd
Cone 19d 2.1a 57a 9e
Tombstone 19d 2.2a 174a 2b
Ring 19d 2.1a 0ab 2b
Hay Sleigh 33e 2.0a 37a 5d
No feeder 57f 1.3b -225b --

*a-f Feeders compared within a column, means without a common superscript differ (P< 0.05).

Design comparison outcomes

Hay waste

Hay waste differs between round-bale feeder designs. But all feeders reduce hay waste compared to not using a feeder. Using a feeder resulted in less hay waste (5 to 33 percent) than not using a feeder (57 percent).

  • Feeders that restrict the horse’s access to hay cause less hay waste (5 to 11 percent) than feeders that provide greater access (13 to 33 percent).
  • Feeders with greater access allow horses to put their whole head into the bale, pull hay out of the feeder and drop it on the ground.
  • There’s no significant difference in waste between circular and non-circular feeders of this type.

Texas research shows hay waste is higher for horses fed round bales of coastal Bermudagrass (38 percent) and alfalfa (31 percent) without a feeder than using a ring feeder (2 and 9 percent, respectively). 

Horse safety

  • Horse injuries were uncommon when using the tested feeders.
  • Cosmetic rub marks on the face can occur with some feeders.
  • When using hay nets, the round bale can collapse, and horses may be able to stand and pass manure or urine on the remaining hay. You can use a net with another feeder to avoid this problem.

Hay intake and weight changes

Feeder design doesn’t affect the amount horses eat. In this study, horses ate 2.0 to 2.4 percent of their body weight (BW) while eating from feeders. Horses ate less (1.3 percent BW) eating without a feeder.

Not using a feeder can result in herd weight loss. The herds that didn’t use a feeder had an average weight loss of 225 pounds for the herd. Less eating and herd weight loss without a feeder was likely due to greater hay spoilage.

Without a feeder, the horses could trample and pass manure or urine on the hay.


The amount of hay waste, how long the feeder lasts and the feeder price affect how long it takes for a feeder to recover the initial expense. A cost comparison is available in the 2010 round-bale feeder study.

Reducing waste for round bales stored outside

Round bales normally have higher waste from storage than small square bales, especially if the bales are outside. Storage can cause 2 to 40 percent hay waste depending on the forage type, storage method, environment and the length of storage.

Storing round bales outside on the ground is common and the most economical way to store hay. But it has the highest potential for waste due to weather.

Outdoor storage waste ranges between 5 and 35 percent depending on the amount of rain or snow, the storage site and the original condition of the bale. Most waste occurs on the bottom of bales because of higher moisture levels and little airflow.

The outer 4-inch layer of a 6-foot diameter round bale contains about 25 percent of the total bale volume. Weather will likely damage this layer if the bales are stored improperly or unprotected.

Storing hay inside can reduce storage waste by about two-thirds. Use a good plastic covering to reduce waste by one-half when storing bales outside.

To reduce hay waste for round bales stored outside

  • Make or buy a tightly packed bale.
    • It will sag less and have less contact with the ground.
    • It will shed more water.
    • It will protect the inner part of the bale from weathering.
  • Use plastic wrap, net wrap or plastic twine.
    • Net-wrapped bales can reduce grass hay waste by 32 percent compared with twine bales stored outside.
    • Plastic twine will resist weather, insects and rodents better than natural fiber twine. Wind the twine tight and space it 6 to 10 inches apart for best storage.
  • Store bales in a well-drained area.
    • Use a well-drained, 4- to 6-inch coarse rock base or wooden pallets to reduce bottom hay waste.
  • Never store bales under trees.
  • Place a temporary cover over round bales you store outside. Keep this cover in place during the whole storage period.

Authors: Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist, William Lazarus, Extension economist, and Marcia Hathaway, professor emeritus of animal science, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2024

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