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Keep baleage from becoming failage

Produced and preserved properly, baleage can be fabulous feed. This fermented forage is packed in large, plastic-wrapped bales, allowing producers to harvest and preserve hay at a higher quality and greater moisture levels. This method offers producers flexibility in the field and allows less time between cutting and storage.
Baleage has many wonderful qualities over dry hay, but it also poses some production challenges. Just like conventional dry hay, putting up high-quality baleage 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 too dry and spoilage occurs, there can be significant losses in value. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Attention to four areas can help make better baleage in terms of quality, stability and profitability.
1. You have to mow when forage is at the right stage of maturity. As forages mature, their crude protein and percentage of total digestible nutrients tend to decline. Dry matter typically increases the longer plants are left growing in the field. If your goal is to get the highest-quality feed possible, harvest earlier in the growth period. If you want more yield, harvest later in the growth stages. It is important to remember that fermentation can’t transform low-quality forage into high-quality forage.

2. Bale at the right moisture levels to ensure that fermentation can occur. In general, the target moisture for baleage is between 45% and 60%. If moisture levels are higher than about 65%, you run the risk of spoilage and low palatability. If moisture levels are lower than 40%, you can end up with mold growth. If you’re pushing the recommended moisture levels, with either too-wet or too-dry forage, wrap those bales as soon as possible with two more layers of polyethylene plastic film to get rid of oxygen and start anaerobic fermentation as soon as possible.

3. Make the bales as dense as possible. With baleage, the denser the bales, the better they do. Higher-density bales have lower pH levels and are more likely to properly ferment the sugars in the forage. The resulting ensiled forage has better quality and feeding value than loosely packed bales. Densely packed bales will also have greater bunk life, spoiling less quickly than poorly packed bales.

4. Wrap bales as soon as you can. For the best baleage, oxygen needs to be eliminated quickly, allowing anaerobic bacteria to appropriately initiate the fermentation process. Use the correct number of wraps of plastic layers and get those on the forage as soon after baling as possible. At a minimum, you should use six layers of 1- to 2-millimeter plastic for each bale, but eight wraps is even better. This is the best way to prevent the internal bale from inappropriately heating to 120°F and beyond. At those temperatures, the protein in the forage can undergo a Maillard reaction, the browning process that happens between amino acids (proteins) and sugars under heat. Hay impacted by Maillard reactions will be sweet-smelling and caramel-colored. While highly palatable, the reaction makes the protein unusable for animal digestion.

For bales to appropriately ferment, it is best to wait six to eight weeks before beginning to feed them. In general, forages baled at 40% to 60% 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.

Using good management practices while harvesting, baling and storing ensures that you get the most out of this valuable feedstuff. For more information on producing and feeding baleage, check with the agronomy and livestock experts at your local MFA. 

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