Are round bales for horses best?


Hay bales can be a convenient and affordable way to feed your horse, especially over the winter months when pasture may be depleted. You get a huge amount of hay that allows free access and can be the ultimate slow hay feeder. But are round bales for horses the best option? Sometimes, if you take a few precautions.

In some parts, traditional square bales are the only option, but round bales may be available in your area. There are some definite pros and cons to using round bales of hay.


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round bale that looks ragged


The advantages of round bales for horses


  • This many pounds of hay is a super bang for your buck. Pound for pound, round bales are more affordable.


  • You can get to know your farmer! These large or small round bales are typically local, so you can learn the quality of the hay as you get to know your hay-bashing neighbors. You will also know what grasses and legumes make up the hay.


  • It’s so easy to feed. They are self-feeding – just park ‘em and watch them get eaten down.


  • There is no need to schlep out to the barn three times a day (or more) for multiple feedings. This is a definite bonus for you and your horses. You save time, and they get to eat all day long.


  • Round bales can be stored very easily if kept at appropriate moisture levels and on a surface, like a wood pallet or nine over a gravel surface, to keep them off the floor and allow for airflow and moisture drainage. Storing them in the wild uncovered is never a good idea, although many store them flat end to flat end while covered. The bales can still get moldy, and moisture will leak from the ground into the hay.


Slow feeding and herd feeding: 


  • You can even get slow-feeder hay nets for a round bale, hay huts to shade and protect the hay, and hay rings. But many horses will see hay rings as a giant DARE to get stuck somehow. There may also be more or less hay waste with slow feeders. You can find specially designed hay houses for horses, where your horse sticks their nose through a window.


  • Round bales of hay are great for feeding a herd, as they are large enough for everyone to share. Ideally, the hay is shared amongst enough horses to only last a few days or a week and won’t rot into the ground.


Read this to learn about haylage – another feeding option with similar pros and cons.


round bale holders for sale at a feed store

These hay rings are not the best for horses! 


Reasons you don’t feed round bales as forage: 


  • Horses generally eat round bales from the sides inward, which creates a hay “hat” that may protect the inside of the round bale from the elements. But, this may also encourage mold.


  • When the “hay hat” collapses, your horse may decide to eat the moldy stuff if they have no other source of forage. This is a bad idea and may even cause colic, heaves, organ failure, and death. There’s also the botulism risk—more on that in a bit.


  •  Horses with respiratory system problems do not benefit from sticking their heads into a bale. They may fare better with a slow feeder system that includes only a few flakes at a time or eating from larger portions covered in a hay net.


  • You may need heavy farm equipment to move these heavy hay bales around the farm.


round bales in a field with hills



More cons:


  • The waste factor can be much larger than feeding flakes from a square bale. There’s a lot of earth trampling around a round feeder and a pile-up of manure and urine.


  • The ground surrounding the round hay bale will be trampled and most likely become a mud pit. Alternating locations of the bale can alleviate this.


  • The nutritional value is typically less due to heat and exposure to the elements. This may be great for overweight horses, but all horses need good nutrition. Supplementing with a vitamin and mineral source is best, and should be more than a salt or mineral block. Your horse may also be missing out on Omega-3 fatty acids.


  • The round bale holders, usually designed for cattle, can trap and injure your horse.


  • Feeding horses in a herd should always account for those lower on the hierarchy. Place more bales, far away from each other, to allow all horses to eat peacefully and safely.


  • You should more closely monitor your horse’s weight and overall health. They may decide that this new pile of hay goodness is enough for only a day or two and pounds pack on. Or, your horse’s coat will dull, they lose energy, and feel less than amazing because they are missing some nutrients.


  • I will always suggest working with an equine nutritionist to help you balance your horse’s diet.


round bale with fine netting on it

This round bale is taller than my 6 ft husband! Other round bales are smaller, topping out at about 3 ft tall.



Are round bales safe for horses when there’s a botulism risk?


  • There’s a microscopic bacteria called Clostridium botulinum that exists in the soil and inside your horse. When it’s just hanging out, it’s safe and fine. But when this bacteria is exposed to moisture, be it water or humidity, and other anaerobic (without oxygen) environmental conditions, it will sporulate. This process releases the botulin toxin, which is deadly to horses.


  • Larger bales of hay present the biggest risk of botulism toxicity. It becomes increasingly dangerous when the hay is not dried or stored properly and when animal remains are picked up during the baling process. Square bales are also at risk, but not as much.


  • It’s always a grand idea to vaccinate your horse for botulism, with boosters, if there’s a chance they will eat from a round bale. Your vet can advise you on an appropriate schedule.


Read more about botulism here.


When to use round bales – not just when pasture is insufficient


  • Round bales can be fantastic for herds during winter. This allows them to eat as they like and remain warm.


  • Round bales can also be helpful in times of drought or when pastures are being rotated.


  • Feeding larger bales is helpful for large herds all year long to help preserve pasture while keeping horses fed.


  • Overweight horses may benefit from the lower nutritional value provided. They still get chew time but not as many calories. They will still need vitamin and mineral supplements, though.



large field with hay bales


What are the different types of grasses or hays used in producing round bales for horses?


Various grasses and hays, such as timothy, bermudagrass, alfalfa, or clover, can be grown and cut for round bales. It’s crucial to ensure the hay is of good quality to meet horses’ nutritional needs for optimal health and performance.


How does feeding round bales impact a horse’s digestive health compared to other feeding methods?


Feeding round bales can lead to horses consuming more dust, mold, and weeds, potentially causing respiratory issues and colic. Hay feeders help reduce this and cut down on waste. But constant eating is great for horses’ digestive systems.


What is the cost comparison between round bales and traditional hay bales for horses?


Round bales for horses are often more cost-effective compared to traditional hay bales. While prices vary based on location and quality, round bales generally provide a lower cost per pound of forage, making them a popular choice for many horse owners looking to save on feed expenses. This might change if there is excessive hay waste.




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