Why You Need a Hay Moisture Meter

If you…

  • think the horse hay you’re buying is dry but don’t know the exact moisture content (ex: 12 %)
  • pride yourself in being able to stick your hand into a bale of hay and say, “this hay is dry”
  • wonder why the hay you bought in August smells stale by the next April

…then you need a hay moisture meter (also called a moisture tester).

The inside of our hay barn

How do I know this? Because I’ve made all these hay-buying mistakes. I recently bought a moisture meter and it’s totally changed the way my wife Julia and I buy hay. Note: For the sake of this discussion, I will use the words “moisture tester” and “moisture meter” interchangeably. They’re the same thing.

Our hay barn. That’s my Julia with her Haflinger pony Pie.

How We Buy Hay

Julia and I live in western North Carolina with our three mules and two horses. At the end of every summer, we fill our barn with hay. The bales are fresh, and the horses and mules love them. By March and April of the following year, the hay often starts to smell stale. Our guys turn up their noses to the stuff they couldn’t eat fast enough the previous August.

The problem is that the hay we’re buying often isn’t as dry as we think. It goes stale over winter. It’s not too stale for the critters to eat, just sort of musty-smelling. A lot of this could be prevented if, over the years, we’d have known the hay we were buying wasn’t as dry as we thought it was.

This photo has nothing to do with hay but it’s a nice photo of Julia and our string. She’s riding my mule Brick. The other critters are (L to R), Cracker, Pie, and Polly.

How I Used to Buy Hay

I’ve always prided myself in being able to buy dry hay. We go through a few hundred bales per year and buy them from local farmers. In the past, I’ve poked my fingers into a bale of hay and felt if the hay was dry or damp. Dry hay feels crispy. Damp hay feels like the laundry after the spin cycle but before it’s been run through the dryer. Dry hay stores for a year. Wet hay can go bad in a few months.

Like I said, until recently, I thought I was a good judge of dry hay. This year, I did things differently. When hay-buying season rolled around, instead of guessing that the hay we were buying was dry, Julia and I bought a moisture meter to make sure it really was. It cost $250 and paid for itself in the first week. It turns out, for all those years I thought I was a top hand at judging moisture content in hay, I was often wrong.

The agraTronix moisture meter
Close-up of agraTronix moisture meter. The meter measures moisture content and temperature.

Buying Hay in Western North Carolina

We buy our hay from a variety of sources ranging from Craigslist to local hay farmers. Western North Carolina has a wet climate. While grass is easy to grow, it’s often difficult to turn that grass into hay. It’s especially hard during the second cutting in September. At that time of year, while the skies maybe be Carolina blue, the days often don’t get warmer than 75 degrees. Nights drop into the forties and we have heavy dews. That makes it really hard to dry hay.

While we have a hayfield, the hay in it doesn’t dry enough to make good horse hay. One of our neighbors, Chris Barlowe, cuts the hay and feeds it to his cows. We buy our hay from nearby hay farmers.

This is our hayfield. The overnight dew is so heavy the cut grass never dries enough to make good hay. Here, our neighbor Chris Barlowe is windrowing the hay before he bales it. He makes round bales and feeds them to his cows.

Buying Hay This Year

A few weeks ago, we bought a load of fescue hay from one of our favorite hay farmers. The hay was a lush, fescue/timothy mix. I thought it was a little wet when we bought it, but it looked so good I bought 80 bales anyway. Julia and I stacked it in our barn. Two days later, the bales were heating up. Some were growing white mold inside. Wet hay is a good way to burn down a barn or make your horses sick. We brought the hay back to the farmer and he gave us credit toward our next purchase.

That load of wet hay ended up costing us lots of diesel and wear and tear on our truck and trailer. It also wasted the equivalent of a day’s labor. Julia and I drove to the farmer’s place, loaded the hay onto our trailer, drove home, and stacked the hay in our barn. Then, when it was too wet to use, we had to stack it back into our trailer, drive it back to the farmer and unload it.

A week later, we drove an hour to buy hay from a feed store we’ve bought good, dry hay from. The hay we found for sale was wet so we drove home with six bales, enough to get through the week but not a whole winter. Two hours of driving is a lot of time and gas to burn for half a dozen bales of hay.

Loaded and ready to go: we can haul 47 bales in the back of our old Dodge.

Enter the Moisture Meter

A few days after that, we read an ad on Craigslist that looked promising. A hay farmer we’d never heard of said he had good, dry horse hay for sale. He’d even posted photos of his hay moisture meter sticking out of a bale of hay. The meter read 12 percent. That’s about as dry as you can make hay in western North Carolina in September.

We grabbed our new moisture meter and drove to his farm for a look. He lived an hour away. We went to where he said the hay was stored and found a dozen hay trailers parked in two hay barns. Each trailer had 150 to 200 bales of hay on it. The hay looked great, but we’d been burned by wet hay so much, we had to wonder. Which was the dry hay?

Which wagon has the dry hay on it? Julia ponders hay moisture.

Stick it in the Bale

In the good old days, before we had our moisture meter, I would have run my hands across the outside of a hay bale to see if it felt wet. The problem with that approach is that the outside of a hay bale can feel dry while the inside is soaking wet. Next, I would have pried the flakes of a bale of hay apart and stuck my fingers inside to see if I felt moisture. From here, it was a purely subjective call. Either the bale felt wet or dry.

I walked up to one of the hay wagons and stuck the moisture meter into one of the hay bales. The hay looked great, and I would have bought it in the days before I owned a moisture meter. The moisture meter read 23 percent moisture. That wasn’t 12 to 14 percent, as we’d seen posted in the Craigslist ad. Hay with 23 percent moisture content won’t last long in our hay barn before spoiling. I stuck the meter into another bale. It read 20 percent. Damn.

Finding the Dry Hay with a Moisture Meter

I walked to another trailer full of hay and stuck the meter into a bale of hay. The meter read 21 percent moisture. We’d driven a long way to look at more wet hay. So much for the farmer’s photo of 12 percent hay.

I checked a few more bales of hay on another wagon load of hay. The moisture meter said they were 10 and 14 percent moisture content. Bingo. We’d found our load. Julia and I ended up testing ten wagonloads of hay. Three of them tested 10 to 15 percent moisture content. That’s the hay we bought, brought home, and stacked in our barn.

Bringin’ home the hay. We can get 156 bales in our stock trailer if we fill the tack room. It’s a 24-foot 2002 Sundowner Rancher. We can also stack another 16 bales in the back of our old 1992 Dodge.

Why You Need a Moisture Meter

Using a hay moisture meter has been a complete deal-changer in how we buy hay. While I used to think I was good at judging buying dry hay, in many cases, it was wishful thinking. I just hoped the hay was dry. In some cases it was. In many cases, it wasn’t.

One of the biggest reasons our hay was stale by the end of the winter was that it wasn’t dry to begin with when we stacked it in our barn. We thought it was dry because it felt dry, not because we had a way of actually measuring the moisture content.

The hay moisture meter we bought paid for itself in the first week because it prevented us from buying and returning a load of hay that was too wet. Returning wet hay is expensive, time-consuming, and wears out your equipment. The moisture meter has allowed us to be 100 percent positive that the hay we are buying was dry enough to put, and keep, in our barn.

It also lets us verify that the hay a farmer says is 12 percent moisture content is actually 12 percent. We were amazed at how many hay farmers that said they sold dry hay didn’t own a hay moisture meter. In one case, a farmer recently told us his hay was 13 percent moisture content, and then admitted he didn’t own a moisture meter.

Don’t Burn Down Your Hay Barn

The final reason to buy a moisture meter is fire safety. Loading wet hay into a barn can burn it down. If hay is baled too wet, the bales can heat up until they spontaneously combust. We have two neighbors whose hay barns caught on fire because they filled them with hay that was too wet.

In one case, the burning hay was pulled out of the barn and the building was saved. In the other, it was burned to the ground. The fire burned farm trucks, a combine, a skid steer, and a trailer.

There’s no guarantee a moisture meter would have kept these two barns from burning but it would have given the farmers a heads-up that the hay they were putting up should have been stored outside for a while to cool down.

One of the Few Gadgets I Would Buy

I have no way of proving that the 400 bales of hay we ended up buying and stacking in our hay barn will stay fresh until next April. I’m guessing they’ll be a lot fresher than the hay I used to buy, relying on hope, not a meter, to be dry.

I’m not big on gadgets, but I’ve become an instant convert to the hay moisture meter. If you’re not using one, it’s something you might consider. Happy hay hunting!

In a future post, I’ll put up some photos you might enjoy of how Julia and I stack hay in our barn.

Hay Moisture Meter Link

Here’s a link to the hay moisture meter we bought on Amazon. I don’t get a kickback from Amazon if you buy one through this link. You can buy them from other vendors as well: AgraTronix 07120, HT-PRO Hay Moisture Tester with 20″ Probe

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Christian Harberts
Christian Harberts
1 year ago

Remember when Snowflake kicked you in the head after you dove into the pile of hay? Don’t feign amnesia!

Could it be that she was reacting to wet hay? We just thought she was being Snowflake… Hmmmm. An old mystery may just have been solved.


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