It almost seems like a broken record. We have continually talked about the excessive amount of poor-quality hay made last year, and the issues surrounding how to incorporate it as a viable feed source in livestock diets. So, the question becomes, how will producers make high-quality, first-cutting hay that maintains a high feed value in the future?
The greatest challenge with making dry hay is simply getting the forage dry enough for baling before the next precipitation event. With this being said, how can we decrease this time interval while still maintaining a high-quality product? The solution may be making baleage, or baled haylage. Baleage is certainly not a new concept, but maybe it is for those not accustomed to feeding this type of forage. Recently, at the Ohio Forages and Grasslands Council Annual Conference, Jimmy Henning, a professor and Extension forage specialist with the University of Kentucky, discussed the ins and outs of making and maintaining quality baleage.
During his presentation, Henning said the biggest issue producers need to get a handle on when making baleage is determining the moisture content “in the moment.” When making baleage, moisture should be between 40% and 60%; however, it can be difficult to hit this moisture mark. Some may be thinking, “That’s a 20% range, how can this be so challenging?” The challenge here is that forages dry faster than we think they do. When mowed, forages are roughly 80% moisture. Dependent upon several environmental conditions, wilting and drying time will vary significantly.
Do you have a moisture tester on-farm? When making quality baleage, this is an important tool to have on hand. The range of 40% to 60% is considered ideal for baleage to properly ferment. Baleage made beyond these recommended ranges can be problematic. Drier forages will tend to have poor fermentation, but can still be fed if done in a quick manner. Some refer to these forages as “sweet hay.” Forages baled at a higher moisture content have the potential to break equipment and be toxic when fed to livestock. Just as we always suggest with dry hay samples, it is recommended that baleage also be tested prior to feeding to livestock.
Use uniform, tight bales
Another tip Henning offered is that the best bales to make baleage with are those that are uniform and tight. These bales tend to have flat ends and will line up nicely in an inline tube wrapper. The key here is to exclude as much oxygen as possible, to allow fermentation to properly occur. Tight, uniform bales are also easier to maneuver, handle and wrap. Henning recommends producers use at least six layers of plastic or more. He notes that four layers is enough, but at this rate there is no safety net. When wrapping bales, it is better to be safe than sorry. Note that plastic does not keep out 100% of the oxygen. Plastics will slowly deteriorate over time, which is why it is recommended that wrapped forages be fed within a year; forage quality may decrease as plastic integrity diminishes.
Overall, this process sounds simple, but there are some aspects to be cautious about. For proper fermentation to occur, a pH of 5.0 or below must be achieved. When mowing forages, ensure that ash levels are as low as possible, as higher ash levels have been associated with toxic issues. One of the greatest concerns revolves around botulism, which is a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. However, Henning notes that Clostridium botulinum fermentation does not equal botulism.
Small grains tend to have more issues with botulism than grasses and legumes. Small grains in the spring are higher in moisture content (low lactic acid) and tend to have a high ash content due to tillage and planting, which all lead to potential issues with botulism. These issues pose serious risks when determining how to feed livestock, as in some cases this will result in animal death due to ingestion of the toxins. Regardless, whether you suspect there is an issue with your baleage or not, it is critical to have these feeds tested. You do the math: How many forage tests can you run before it costs more than losing just one animal due to a toxic issue?
Here are two important lists provided by Henning concerning good baleage and high risk factors.
• Bales should be cut early.
• Bales should be tight and uniform.
• Mow only what can be wrapped in one day.
• Bale at wet end of moisture range (60%).
• Use at least six layers of plastic.
• Ensure that you are using high-quality plastic.
High risk baleage factors:
• Moisture content is above 70%.
• Bales are loose and uneven.
• Bales are wrapped in four layers of plastic or fewer.
• A bad-smelling odor (butyric acid) is present.
• The pH is greater than 5.0.
• The ash content is greater than 11%.
Campbell is the program coordinator for the OSU Sheep Team.