At the end of April, many producers were concerned that drought conditions would persist and hay would be in short supply. Thankfully the tables turned and a large portion of the state began getting moisture, but now the continued precipitation in some areas brings its own challenges when it comes to haying season. With the frequent rain showers it is a challenge to get into hay fields and the subsequent high humidity is slowing down the drying process of the hay.

Baleage Production: Tips and techniques

Baleage (round bale silage) is an alternative that producers can use to deal with the challenges they are facing this year. To produce baleage, forage is cut with conventional haying equipment and allowed to reach 40-60% dry matter, with 50-55% being optimal. This is in comparison to the less than 15% moisture for baling traditional hay. The wilted forage is then baled into tight bales and wrapped in plastic to exclude oxygen and allow for the ensiling process to occur. The bales need to be wrapped within 12 hours after baling to reduce heating of the feed and loss of quality. There are some small losses in dry matter through the ensiling process, but these are negligible in comparison to traditional haying practices. The baleage will be of higher feed quality than traditional hay because it is maintained in an anaerobic environment and typically harvested at an earlier maturity.

The baleage will be heavier to handle and may require an upgrade in equipment to a tractor and front-end loader that can easily handle it. The baler needs to be set up to handle wet forage. With the added weight of additional water, it is important that bales are kept to a smaller size (4 feet X 4 (or 5) feet) to help ensure minimal damage to equipment due to additional weight. The bales will weigh between 1300 and 1600 lbs.

Additional equipment is needed to wrap the bales in plastic, but depending on the situation, wrappers range in price from approximately $6,000 to greater than $25,000. There may also be a possibility to rent a wrapper.

When to cut forage?

The question may arise on when forage should be cut to reach the appropriate moisture content. In general it should be cut when maturity combines the appropriate yield and quality for your feeding requirements with adequate moisture in the plant. For legumes, this is at about 10% bloom, while grasses are at the boot stage or just as the head emerges. With the abundant amount of yellow sweet clover we have this year, this can be a method to utilize the sweet clover for feed, but everything must be done right to avoid mold growth in the feed. The unfortunate thing this year is that many forages are past the ideal stage for harvesting, but there is still value in creating baleage, as long as the oxygen is taken away from the feed. It will not ensile as well when the plant is more mature, but the forage will be preserved and stable as long as there is 60% dry matter or less.

Bail Density: Denser is better

The key to making baleage is the density of the bale, the denser, the better. The bale should be 10 lbs/cubic foot or greater to ensure less spoilage. To do this, one must use a slow ground speed and likely plastic twine. Other twine or net wrap can be used, but treated sisal twine is not recommended because it can degrade the plastic film. The plastic film is a polyethylene plastic film that is pre-stretched 50-70% by the wrapper as it is applied. It will vary in tear strength and tack, depending on brand, and can be black or white.

Wrapping Bales

There are multiple types of wrappers that can be used. Some are individual bale wrappers, while another is an in-line wrapper. In either case it is important to have the bales in the location they will be stored, prior to wrapping. Once they are wrapped, it is best not to move them until they are fed. If they get holes in the plastic, then there is greater opportunity for spoilage and the holes would need to be patched to prevent this spoilage. The individual wrappers will wrap each bale, while the in-line wrapper pushes bales into a bag and has a number of bales in a wrapped line. The key with the in-line wrapper is to ensure that all air is removed between the bales.

Forages that are made into baleage can be fed in a similar manner to hay. It can be placed in a feeder or a bale processor can be used to distribute the feed. Once the bags are open, if the ambient temperatures are cold, the likelihood of spoilage is diminished, but the bales that are exposed should still be fed within a few days of exposure to oxygen.