Baling hay comes with many risks. It can take hours, often days, for hay to dry down. During that waiting period, an untimely rain could hamper the quality of the hay and set the rest of haying season on standby.
To eliminate some of the risks and improve the quality of stored forages, Dan Undersander, agronomist with University of Wisconsin, recommends putting up a wetter version of hay: baleage.
“It’s important to recognize that we have varying qualities of forages that can be put up,” Undersander says. “It’s really important that we feed the right quality of forage to the right cattle to get the best performance.”
Forage is at its highest quality when it is cut, he adds. Waiting for it to dry can be detrimental to the quality. Undersander collected data on swathed alfalfa that showed fiber increases 0.43% per day, while fiber digestibility drops 0.43%. Crude protein decreases by 0.25% each day after cutting.
Baleage lets producers harvest without worrying about weather effects. For small square bales, dried hay has to be baled at 20% moisture or less. For large round bales, there must be even less moisture. With baleage, moisture can range from 25% to 70%. The flexibility in moisture content allows producers to speed up the baling process and get work done before a rain that would spoil a normal hay crop.
Speeding up baling also helps crop yields. Each day an alfalfa field is driven over after a cutting results in a 6% yield loss on the next cutting, so waiting five days to bale hay means a 30% yield reduction. “That’s a big deal, and that’s why we should be thinking about getting it off of the field faster,” Undersander says.
Consider cutting hay into wider swaths for baleage, as it helps shut down 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,” Undersander says.
The moisture range of 25% to 70% is important to keep in mind. 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 because of the increased fermentation rate. Bales higher than 70% moisture might also 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 (similar to storing silage in a bunker or tube silo) to preserve hay quality. The fermentation produces acids that help reduce the rate of spoilage.
When applying plastic wrap around bales, use six layers to reduce the amount of oxygen diffusing through. “If you put enough thickness of plastic on it, it’s air tight, and it is going to be safe as long as the plastic maintains its integrity,” Undersander says.
Bales should be wrapped within 24 hours. A study looking at heating in bales wrapped during different periods of time showed the longer the baleage sat unwrapped, the more damage occurred.
Baleage offers a relatively inexpensive option for entering the silage business for those producers who rely on baling hay and grazing, says Mike McCormick, former dairy and beef specialist with Louisiana State University AgCenter Research and Extension.
“Compared to traditional grass silage, these investments are probably a one-fourth to one-third of what it would take to get into a traditional silage-type system. When you look at the precision choppers, wagons, storage facility, it can add up quickly,” McCormick says.
For baleage, the largest cost is the plastic wrapper. Individual wrappers are less expensive, starting at $20,000 and up to $100,000 when purchased with a baler. McCormick says most newer models of balers that are belt driven—and even some fixed chamber types—can handle baling wet forages. “They don’t roll up on the baler intakes like they used to several years ago,” he adds.
The cost of wrapping bales is usually $6 per bale when individually wrapping with six wraps. Specialty bale handling equipment may be required to help reduce the risk of tearing the plastic.
When using an in-line wrapper, the cost drops to $3 per bale because less plastic is used. However, the system requires a faster feed out rate to prevent aerobic deterioration. An in-line wrapper usually cost $30,000 to $40,000.
By going to the baleage system, the storage loss reductions can pay for plastic and other affiliated costs compared to typical dried-down hay. McCormick says when baleage is put up at the proper moisture, losses from shrink are 5% or less after eight months exposed to the elements, as witnessed in
10 studies. Meanwhile, dried hay left outside in a high humidity environment such as Louisiana can see 20% to 30% losses in the same timeframe.
“Not only that, when you go to feed out, you’re going to have 10% to 20% losses in feed out that the animals will refuse,” he adds.