Baling hay comes with many risks. It can take hours, often days, for hay to dry. While waiting, an untimely rain can hamper quality and put the rest of haying season on standby.
Baleage, a wetter version of hay, lets producers harvest with less weather concerns. Dried hay has to be baled at 20% moisture or less in small square bales and even less moisture for large round bales. With baleage, moisture can range from 25% to 70%. The flexibility allows producers to speed up the baling process, which is good for crop yields. Each day an alfalfa field is driven over after cutting, there is 6% yield lost on the next cutting.
When putting up baleage, cut hay into wider swaths to help shutdown respiration. “If we don’t shut down respiration, the plants break down those starches and sugars, giving off carbon dioxide. You could lose 2% to 6% dry matter,” says Dan Undersander, forage specialist, University of Wisconsin.
Bales with moisture below 25% have stems that might break the plastic. When bales are above 70%, they produce butyric acid and other harmful byproducts due to the fermentation rate and could freeze during the winter.
It’s also important to note baleage below 50% moisture relies on oxygen exclusion for preservation. A layer of white mold on the surface of opened bales indicates oxygen came through the plastic—either too few layers of plastic were used or the plastic was too porous.
Bales higher than 50% moisture content use both oxygen exclusion and fermentation to preserve hay quality. The fermentation produces acids that help reduce the rate of spoilage.
Bales should be wrapped within 24 hours using six layers of plastic wrap to reduce oxygen diffusing through.
The cost of wrapping ranges from $3 per bale when using an in-line wrapper because less plastic is needed to $6 per bale when individually wrapping with six wraps. When using a baleage system, the storage loss reductions can pay for plastic and other costs compared with standard dried down hay.