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Feeding horses with a round-bale feeder

Quick facts

Horse owners commonly use round bales to feed horses on poor pastures, in dry lots or during winter months.

  • Round bales usually cost less per ton than small square bales.
  • 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.

Round-bale feeders can reduce hay waste

A 2010 University of Minnesota study of round-bale feeders found using a feeder resulted in less hay waste (5 to 33 percent waste) compared to not using a feeder (57 percent waste).

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). 

Selecting a round-bale feeder for your horse

Hay waste differs between round-bale feeder designs. But all feeders reduce hay waste compared to not using a feeder.

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.

Horse safety

Horse injuries are uncommon when using the tested feeders. Cosmetic rub marks on the face can occur with some feeders. Be aware that 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 the 2010 round-bale feeder 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

In the 2010 round-bale feeder study, the herds that didn’t use a feeder had an average herd (three horses) weight loss of 225 pounds. 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 a 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 original condition of the bale. Most waste occurs on the bottom of bales because of higher moisture levels and little air flow.

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

Storing hay inside can reduce storage waste by about two-thirds. Using a good plastic covering can 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% compared with twine bales stored outside

    • Plastic twine will resist weathering, insects and rodents better than natural fiber twines. Wind the twine tight and space it 6 to 10 inches apart for best storage

  • Store bales in a well-drained area

    • Reduce bottom hay waste by using a well-drained, 4- to 6-inch coarse rock base or wooden pallets

  • 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

Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist; William Lazarus, Extension economist; and Marcia Hathaway, professor of animal science, College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences

Reviewed in 2018

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