Yard owners and farmers work with all manner of dangerous machinery, so the process and technique of stacking and unstacking hay, straw and bedding bales can quite often be seen as a fairly low risk activity, when in fact it can bring the most danger. Many accidents lead to life-changing injuries while others can be fatal.

As livery yard insurance specialists, we have put together a handy guide on how to stack and unstack hay and straw bales, keeping on top of them as well as offering our independent insurance advice.

Types of accidents

As with many agricultural tasks, stacking hay bales can be fraught with danger. But what could actually go wrong?

Well, there are known health issues associated with handling hay and straw bales even without any accidents. The dust from the bales can cause respiratory problems and could cause infections in open wounds. Hay bales are heavy items and pulling, pushing, pivoting and rolling them can be a manual handling hazard, causing back injury.

Whilst these are mostly manageable, simple accidents can—and do—happen often throughout the year. These could be:

  • Falling from a hay bale
  • Falling from a piece of equipment
  • A bale falling onto an individual
  • Bales catching fire
  • Bales catching on overhead power lines
  • Tripping on bale string
  • Falling through unstable/unsuitable bale stack footing

 How can you prevent this?

Taking care to stack bales efficiently is the best way to ensure the safety of you, your colleagues, your horses or livestock and members of the public. Equally, taking the right precautions to secure the bales and maintaining them is essential.

Where do you stack bales?

  • Build on firm, dry, level, freely draining ground
  • Away from potential fire hazards
  • Ensure there is good road access
  • Provide signs to warn people to keep clear of bale stacks
  • Away from overhead power lines

How do you stack hay bales?

Like any stack, the bottom of it needs to be a solid foundation. How you stack bales depends on a few things though. The size and shape of a stack is important, but density plays a big part. You don’t want to have weakly-constructed bales as the base of your stack.

For large square stacks:

  • Start with the widest bales and try to use narrow ones as you stack
  • Alternate layers so that there is a clear overlap of roughly half a bale all around the stack
  • Don’t stack any higher than 1.5x the width of the base
  • Don’t stack more than ten bales on hard-standing or concrete
  • Don’t stack more than eight bales where there is no hard-standing available

For small square stacks:

  • Start with the widest bales and try to use narrow ones as you stack
  • Interlock with alternate layers rotated
  • Work as if it’s brickwork so that every bale is locked in

For round bales:

  • Use a pyramid system
  • Don’t stack bales on their ends
  • Fit outside bales with stakes to keep in place
  • Overlap layers by roughly half a bale

 How do you unstack hay bales?

Of course, the trick to stacking bales is making sure that you can unstack them when you come to use them. You should never stack so high that your machinery is unable to safely take them down. When unstacking or de-stacking, you should:

  • Try to remember how they were stacked and work in reverse order
  • Work from the top
  • Use appropriate mechanical machinery to unstack, even if you think it’s just a case of pushing a bale down
  • Be cautious of settling, where a bale sinks into the one below and starts to topple

Keep on top of things

It could be several months from when you stack to when you unstack. In that time, lots could have happened which changed the safety of your stack. You should check bale stacks regularly, making sure to:

  • Look out for damage to the stack following poor weather
  • Look out for livestock and wild animal damage
  • Ensure children are not using the stack as a play area
  • Check that bales are still rigid in place. If it looks loose, use machinery to fix this
  • Look out for open bales or bales where the string has failed causing instability
  • Dismantle or rebuild any stacks that have become unsafe

Other problems associated with bales


  • Your local fire brigade can advise you on clearance distances to be maintained between stacks and occupied buildings
  • Plan stacks away from public access if possible

Sources of ignition

  • Do not store fertilisers or fuel nearby
  • Make sure electrical wiring inside your barns is suitable, safe and correctly insulated
  • Do not allow smoking near stacks
  • Keep bale elevator engines free of debris by installing a protective shield or guard

Overhead power lines

  • Do not build stacks under or within 10m horizontal distance of overhead power lines
  • Avoid operating loading equipment below overhead power lines


  • Whenever possible use machinery for handling bales
  • Keep doors and windows closed on tractors and loaders
  • Avoid working with bales in a building or enclosed space


  • Ensure you have a good vermin control plan
  • Vermin such as rats can destroy vast amounts of a stack
  • They can also cause illnesses such a leptospirosis

How insurance can help

Securing your bales isn’t just about health and safety. It also protects your business from any accidents which could happen.

Under your Employers’ Liability insurance you have a Duty of Care for your employees. Due to this, it is likely that if one of them were to be injured by a bale, and you were to be found negligent, that the claim would automatically succeed.

If the victim was a member of the public, Public Liability can do the same thing and pay for legal fees and compensation.

The advice in this guide has been compiled based on the claims experience of us and our insurers and does not cover every eventuality.

SEIB are here for you

At SEIB, we specialise in livery yard insurance. We know first-hand the fatal catastrophes poor planning and maintenance can bring, and so encourage yard owners to consider the right insurance.

Speak with the team on 01708 850 000 or email info@seib.co.uk