Forages are at their best when first cut, but quality begins to deteriorate quickly between harvest and storage. An alternative to putting up dry hay is baleage, also called haylage or round baled silage. With baleage, forage is baled and wrapped in plastic at high moisture, up to 65 percent. Inside the plastic, the forage is ensiled and quality is preserved. This storage method minimizes weather risks that can affect hay quality while drying in the field. For regions that receive frequent spring rain and/or high humidity, the method offers producers flexibility in the field and allows less time between cutting and storage.
When it comes to harvesting and handling, putting up high-quality baleage is the same as conventional dry hay. Its quality is a function of forage maturity when cut and how it’s subsequently handled during baling and storage. If the bales are too wet or dry and spoilage occurs, there can be significant losses in value. As long as baleage is done correctly, however, there are decreased harvest losses and increased quality compared to the same-quality dry hay.
Here are some tips for harvesting, wrapping and feeding the highest-quality baleage:
Cutting and prepping:
- Cut forage in late-boot to early-head stage to maximize sugars and the fermentation process.
- Cut after the dew has dried from the standing forage. Using the moisture in the plant—not on the outside—is crucial.
- Set the mower to lay the forage as wide as possible to enhance even drying. Forage containing less than 40-percent moisture or much above 65 percent should not be baled for silage to avoid excessive molding or spoilage.
- Rows should not be tedded. This will alter the straight orientation of the stems, which will reduce the efficiency of a tight bale.
- The key is to eliminate as much oxygen as possible. Making a tight bale will help do this.
- Research has shown that exceptional baleage can be made without the use of additives. This is true even when ensiling legume crops that have more difficulty reaching the pH range of stabilized fermentation. However, inoculating with Lactobacillus buchneri strains can accelerate the rate of fermentation and improve stability of the silage during feeding. This is particularly important if the baleage is to be fed during the summer or in warm climates.
- Pre-cutters in the baler will increase bale density and improve fermentation.
- When using in-line tube wrappers, create uniform bale sizes as much as possible to eliminate unevenness when stacked against each other. Irregularity of the tubes may expose more oxygen to the bale.
- Wrapping bales at the proper moisture content (45-60 percent) will help minimize the risk of botulinum toxicosis, caused by a potent bacterium in the environment. The spores remain dormant until exposed to anaerobic conditions and the right nutrients, which can cause them to germinate, grow and release toxins.
- Ideally, bales should be wrapped immediately after baling, but research has shown waiting up to 12 hours has minimal effect on forage quality. Wrap that is typically 1 mil thick, when overlapped, should give coverage thickness of 4-6 mil of plastic and 50- to 55-percent stretch. Wrap in dry weather for plastic to stick.
- Store bales on level ground free of rocks or other sharp objects that may puncture the plastic. Orient the bales to minimize constant direct sunlight in a single area, such as in a north/south line. This will reduce sweating and deterioration of the plastic. Periodically check the bales for tears or holes and fix right away. Use tape made for the plastic, not duct tape.
- Some mold will form around the edges. This is usually just at the surface, and animals will eat around it. It will not significantly harm the animal if some is eaten.
- For bales to appropriately ferment, it is best to wait six to eight weeks before beginning to feed them.
- If forages are baled at more than 60-percent moisture, feed these first as the shelf life is only about three months. At 30- to 40-percent moisture levels, feed value declines after six months. In general, forages baled at 40- to 60-percent moisture will maintain feed value for about 12 months as long as the plastic is intact. However, even when baled at the appropriate moisture level and the plastic has a minimal amount of holes, it is best to feed baleage within nine months.