This high moisture, fermented forage product has been catching attention in parts of the country where baling a dry hay crop can be close to impossible.
“Sometimes it’s challenging to string 3 to 4 days together without getting rain damage to the hay during curing,” says University of Georgia Extension specialist and associate professor Dr. Dennis W. Hancock. “But if we get an afternoon or two together, we can make baleage and conserve the forage quality.”
When it comes to making baleage, timing and procedure are everything.
“Poor management can cause baleage to be a disaster,” Hancock says. “But under good management, there is a potential savings from a lot less forage loss compared to hay.”
The process starts out by baling forage that is at 50 to 65 percent moisture content. According to Hancock, 60 percent moisture is the ideal target. Because bales need to be wrapped within four hours of being baled at the high moisture content, Hancock says producers need to be sure only to cut as much forage as they can get baled and wrapped the next day. Bales can be wrapped individually or in rows.
“The wrap has to be thick enough to exclude oxygen so the fermentation process can take place. That means we need at least four layers of plastic,” Hancock says. “In our Southeast region, I would recommend six to eight layers because of the intensity of our sunlight and weather conditions, just to provide a little extra insurance against spoilage.”
Hancock recommends using net wrap when baling baleage forage to help them hold up against deformation.
“A baleage bale is going to be roughly twice the weight of a normal hay bale of that same size because of the extra moisture,” he says. “They tend to squat and deform, and that can stretch the plastic.”
This also makes it essential bale uniformity is kept in mind.
“With the in-line bale wrappers, the bales are sliding up against one another and have to be uniform in order to fit well with each other,” he says. “If they don’t fit well, the plastic will be overly stretched and it could cause a hole to develop or oxygen to get into the bales and cause mold.”
To ensure quality, baleage bales need to be fed within nine months of harvest.
“Feeding baleage is very similar to feeding a round bale; the only addition is cutting the plastic off,” he says. “They can be fed in a hay ring or on the ground or, with some modifications, put through a bale grinder.”
Hancock notes that extra costs will occur if producers decide to make baleage. On top of obtaining a wrapper, labor will increase.
“Plastic costs will be a significant increase in costs on a per-ton-of-dry-matter basis. We’re looking at roughly $3 to $5 per ton of dry matter,” he says. “It can also take a significant amount of labor and time to operate that equipment, so that needs to be figured in as well.”
In the Southeast, Hancock says it’s typical to figure 20 to 25 percent forage loss during storage of hay and an additional 10 to 15 percent loss during feeding. But with baleage, these numbers shrink significantly with less that 10 to 15 percent loss during storage and less than 5 percent during feeding.
“The animals really find baleage to be extremely palatable and will literally lick the ground where it’s fed,” Hancock says. “It’s amazing how much they prefer it over hay.”
According to him, this is enough to offset extra expenses involved when dealing with high-quality forages.
“From a quality aspect, timing of harvest is extremely critical. If we have a year with rain, the timely harvest of our forage is extremely difficult and that can mean the difference between making good-quality feed for our cattle and baling up something more akin to straw,” Hancock says. “At the end of the day that’s a big cost savings for producers.”