Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia
Jimmy C. Henning, Chris Teutsch, Ray Smith, and Brandon Sears, University of Kentucky
Baled silage, or “baleage,” is an excellent method for forage harvest, storage, and feed efficiency. Conserving forage as baleage enables harvests to be performed on a timely basis, allowing harvests to capture higher quality forage. This publication focuses on common questions about making and feeding baleage.
WHY SHOULD I CONSIDER MAKING BALEAGE?
Baled silage allows forage to be harvested at higher whole-plant moisture levels than is required for dry hay. Baleage is ideal for spring cuttings of annual and perennial forages when seasonally frequent rainfall events provide little opportunity for properly curing dry hay. Many producers who want to harvest high-quality small grain crops have found baleage to be a good fit for their operation.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE BALEAGE ENSILING PROCESS?
Forages at 50-60% plant moisture that are baled and wrapped in plastic allow anaerobic microorganisms to ferment some of the carbohydrates in the forage to lactic acid. The accumulation of lactic acid lowers bale pH and inhibits the growth of detrimental microorganisms. Although this process consumes some dry matter and digestible energy (mainly water-soluble carbohydrates), these losses are small compared to dry matter losses that result from raking, tedding, baling, and storing round bales outside as hay. Conversely, if high-moisture forage is baled like normal hay, excessive microbial activity will render the forage useless.
WHAT EQUIPMENT WILL I NEED?
A baleage system requires nearly the same equipment as a conventional hay system, with the addition of a wrapper and plastic. The minimum requirements are a mower, possibly a rake, a baler capable of baling wet forage, a tractor of sufficient horsepower to carry these bales safely, a bale spear, and a wrapper. Some balers have a chopping mechanism that aids in increasing bale density as well as reducing particle size for ease in mixing rations, but this is not necessary in situations where no mixing is needed. Bale spears are inexpensive ways of moving the bales prior to wrapping and just before feeding. Wrappers range in cost from $6,000 to $35,000 or more and differ considerably in labor and equipment requirements. An alternative to purchasing a bale wrapper is to work with a custom operator or rent one locally.
WHAT SHOULD I USE TO MOW?
Mower conditioners are the most popular and easiest-to-use mowing implements for a baleage system. Mower conditioners crush stems, which allows baleage to dry faster and provide a more conducive environment for microbial growth. Although mower conditioners are ideal, other types of mowers can also be used successfully.
WHEN DO I CUT?
Cut the forage crop at the maturity stage that combines yields and quality sufficient for your feeding requirements. In general, cut legumes at 10% bloom and grasses at the boot stage or just as the head emerges. Ideally, rye and triticale should be cut before the boot stage. In general, early-maturity forage has higher soluble carbohydrate content, essential for proper ensiling. Conversely, overmature forages will not ferment well because they are coarse, stemmy, and have a reduced soluble carbohydrate content.
CAN MY ROUND BALER HANDLE HIGH-MOISTURE HAY?
Some modern variable chamber balers are capable of baling wet forage into a dense package. However, special silage models are recommended because they are specifically designed to bale wet forage. Silage balers have modifications such as scrapers on the belts and rollers to prevent buildup of material, and they have heavy-duty bearings to help handle the increase in bale weight. Several baler manufacturers offer “silage kits” that can be added to older balers to enable them to handle baleage.
WHEN SHOULD I BALE?
Considering all factors, the optimum whole-plant moisture for baled silage is 50-60%. Baling at the proper moisture content is a key to success in producing baleage. Forage containing less than 40% or more than 65% moisture should not be baled for silage in order to avoid excessive molding or spoilage. Producing bales with too much moisture reduces forage quality and increases the chance of undesirable butyric acid fermentation. Baling with low moisture reduces fermentation and increases mold production, which greatly increases storage losses.
HOW SHOULD I MAKE THE BALES?
A slow ground speed during baling helps make tight, dense bales that are less likely to spoil. Plastic twine is recommended, but net wrap or untreated sisal twine can be used. Avoid treated sisal twine because the oils applied during the manufacturing process often degrade the plastic film and can result in large storage losses. The most popular bale size is 4 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet in diameter. These bales will weigh 900 to 1300 pounds, depending on forage type, bale density, and moisture level. They are best for handling and feeding. Larger bales more than 2,000 pounds require less film per ton but can be very hard to handle.
SHOULD I APPLY ADDITIVES?
Excellent baleage can be made without the use of additives. Additives are not necessary even when ensiling legume crops, which have more difficulty reaching a stable, low pH. However, inoculants can enhance fermentation, reduce storage losses under challenging crop moisture conditions, and increase silage stability, and they should be considered as a risk management strategy. Additionally, there are some situations where inoculating with Lactobacillus buchneri strains can improve the stability of the silage during feed out.
HOW SOON SHOULD I WRAP THE BALES?
Ideally, wrap forage immediately or within 12 hours of baling. Lapses between baling and wrapping lowers feed quality by allowing undesirable microbial activity and excessive heating. Delays in baling may also cause the bales to deform, making it challenging to wrap.
WHERE SHOULD I WRAP THE BALES?
Wrapping at the storage site minimizes handling of wrapped bales and reduces the potential for damaging plastic. Store bales on well-drained sod and away from trees or weeds that might harbor rodents and insects that attract birds and lead to plastic damage. Avoid locations with excessively coarse stubble that may cause small punctures. Patch small holes in the bale’s plastic using a repair tape treated to resist degradation from ultraviolet (UV) light (not duct tape).
WHAT KIND OF WRAP SHOULD BE USED?
The plastic wrap used in making baleage is a polyethylene plastic film that is prestretched 50-70% by the wrapper as it is applied to the bale. The plastic must be able to withstand local environmental conditions such as UV radiation and changes in ambient air temperature. Tear strength and tack (stickiness) may also vary among brands of wrap. Plastic film may be white or black. White plastic is most common in this region since it reflects sunlight better and reduces the radiational heating of the plastic.
WHAT TYPE OF WRAPPER IS BEST?
Two major types of wrappers are available and all can produce good baleage. The main types are individual bale wrappers and inline bale wrappers.
Individual bale wrappers simultaneously rotate and revolve the bale on a platform to feed plastic from a stationary roll. Inline bale wrappers place bales end to end in a row while dispensing plastic from rollers that travel around the bale. More recently, integrated baler wrapper designs, which individually wrap the bale just after it is formed, have become available. The most common type of wrapper available today is the inline wrapper due to its quick wrapping rates, reduced plastic consumption, and ease of use. Many inline wrappers have automatic wrapping features with remote control options that allow the producer to operate the machine from the tractor, thereby reducing labor requirements.
HOW MUCH PLASTIC NEEDS TO BE APPLIED?
Apply at least four to six layers of UV-stabilized plastic per bale. If storage is anticipated to be shorter than three months before feeding, then four layers of plastic are acceptable. More wrap can somewhat improve storage life. Always ensure that the tension of the wrap (tacky side toward bale) is such that film is stretched uniformly on the bales. For an individual bale wrapper, the preferred method is called the “2+2 system,” in which two layers of wrap are applied during one rotation of the bale with a 50% overlap of successive layers. Some inline wrappers also allow extra plastic to be applied at the joints between bales. If this option is available, apply two to four extra layers at these joints. Use the high end of this range if bales lack uniformity or do not match up well at the joints. Do not apply too little plastic, or oxygen will penetrate the bale and cause spoilage, mold growth, and feed losses.
HOW MANY BALES CAN BE WRAPPED PER HOUR?
Using an individual bale wrapper, experienced workers can wrap 25 or more bales per hour. This number can be doubled with an inline wrapper.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Since each plastic roll costs approximately $80 and will cover 25 to 30 (four-layer) bales, the average cost per bale is $3-4. Because the cost of the wrapper varies and the type of wrapper determines the amount of labor and plastic that will be required, the total cost of baleage per ton of dry matter (DM) is highly dependent on the type of wrapper used. Inline wrappers are usually less labor intensive and can use less plastic than the cheaper models.
WHAT IF I FEED A MOLDED BALE?
Even in good baleage, some bales develop a surface white mold. This usually occurs on the flat ends of the bale and around previously undetected pinholes in the plastic. This type of mold rarely penetrates more than an inch into the bale. The animal usually eats around or even discards this portion. Even if ingested, this type of mold should not significantly harm the animal.
SHOULD I BE CONCERNED WITH BOTULISM?
Botulism poisoning of cattle from baleage is not common and can be prevented. Botulism toxicity is caused by the excessive growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria in baleage that has been baled too wet (greater than 60% moisture content) and has a pH above 4.5. Clostridium bacteria is common in soil and in the carcasses of decaying animals. Forage can become contaminated during raking and baling and from dead animals that get trapped in the baled forage. The risk of botulism toxicity from baleage is minimized by baling at a moisture content less than 60%, using at least four layers of plastic, and preventing puncture damage to plastic during storage. If botulism toxicity is suspected, analyze a sample of the forage for pH and moisture content at a certified forage laboratory.
IS BALEAGE HIGHER IN FORAGE QUALITY?
The single most important factor affecting forage quality is the stage of maturity at harvest. The quality of forage cut is the greatest determining factor on the baleage quality. When comparing properly ensiled baleage to properly cured dry hay, the forage quality of the baleage is higher due to decreased losses from harvest and storage.
HOW SOON AFTER WRAPPING CAN I FEED BALEAGE?
Forage baled in the correct moisture range and wrapped with the correct amount of plastic will undergo the full fermentation process within six to eight weeks and but can reach a stable pH in four weeks. Cool temperatures, mature forage, and insufficient forage moisture levels will reduce the fermentation rate.
HOW LONG CAN BALEAGE BE STORED BEFORE FEEDING?
In general, forages baled at 40-60% moisture will maintain feed value for about 12 months as long as the integrity of the plastic is maintained. However, even where the forage was baled at the appropriate moisture level and the plastic has minimal holes, it is good practice to feed baleage bales within 9 months.
WHAT KIND OF FEEDING SYSTEM SHOULD I USE TO MINIMIZE LOSSES?
Use a ring feeder, a cone-type ring feeder, or an elevated bale wagon to minimize losses during feeding. Losses can reach 50% when feeding without using one of these devices. When feeding whole baleage packages to any species, it is best to feed a number of animals sufficient to eat the entire bale within two to three days. Baleage may also be integrated into rations by grinding and mixing.
WHICH ANIMALS CAN BE FED BALEAGE?
Traditionally, baleage has been fed to beef and dairy cattle, but it can also be fed to sheep and goats. Baleage is generally not fed to horses. To ensure the most efficient use of quality baleage, it is important to match the bale’s quality to the animals’ economic productivity. Baleage can and should be tested for nutrient levels in the same manner as dry hay.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THE USED PLASTIC?
Because the plastic can be used for making baleage only once, plastic disposal is a potential environmental problem. Currently, there are no standard policies for the collection and disposal of used baleage plastic beyond landfill deposits. In the future, used plastic may be collected for recycling. Such efforts have been successful in areas that have enough plastic to warrant the collection and recycling of other agricultural plastics. Check with your local government or division of solid waste on applicable statutes in your area for disposal or recycling.
CAN I WRAP DRY HAY AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO INSIDE STORAGE?
Some producers who have limited inside space for storing dry hay rolls have successfully wrapped dry hay for outside storage. Typically, only enough plastic to cover the bale is needed, usually two layers with about a 20% overlap at the edges. For best results, allow hay to go through the sweat period (typically one to two weeks) before wrapping.
HOW DO I DETERMINE THE PROPER MOISTURE CONTENT OF MY FORAGE?
• Dish rag test - Take a handful of forage and wring it out as one would wring out a dishrag. If moisture can be expressed from the forage, it is generally above the 65% moisture range.
• High moisture hay probes - Commercially available testers are an option for measuring forage moisture levels but are less accurate than forced-air dryer or microwave methods. Obtain at least three moisture readings to create an average value. Commercial testing equipment can be costly. Moisture testers for hay are not calibrated for the moisture content of baleage.
• Koster moisture testers - Koster moisture testers are heated, forced-air dryers that are used in silage production to dry down the forage. The Koster system has a scale to measure weights, but it takes longer than a microwave moisture test.
• Moisture sensors in the baler - Some silage balers can be equipped with sensors that provide a continuous readout of moisture content while the bale is formed.
• Microwave moisture test - A microwave may also be used to accurately measure moisture content. Measuring the moisture content of forage using a microwave oven:
1. Chop fresh forage into short lengths (less than 1 inch) for ease of handling and uniform drying.
2. Weigh out at least 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of chopped forage.
3. Spread forage thinly on a microwave-safe dish and place into microwave. (A cup of water placed in the microwave beside the sample will help prevent the sample from igniting once dry.)
4. Heat for 1-2 minutes and reweigh. If the forage is not completely dry, shake and redistribute the sample, and repeat the heating cycle until the sample reaches a stable weight. Microwaves vary considerably in drying capacity. It is better to dry for short intervals and reweigh until the last two weights are constant than to overdry and run the risk of burning and damage to oven. If charring occurs, use the previous weight.
5. Calculate moisture content using the following equation: % Moisture Content = (W1- W2) / W1
W1 = weight of forage before heating
W2 = weights of forage after heating
Dry matter (DM) is the percentage of forage that is not water.
DM equals 100% minus the % moisture content.
Equation adapted from: Southern Forages 4th Edition, Page 303
Status and Revision History
Published on Feb 27, 2019