By Brad Schick
Oftentimes, the terms baleage and haylage are used interchangeably in conversation depending on the location of the farm or ranch, or simply by the type of operation. So how are baleage and haylage different and why are they used?
The ensiling or fermentation process of preserving forages takes place in both haylage and baleage, hence the names. Baleage can be confused with traditional dry hay because it is still a square or round bale, but it is simply hay that is too moist to store safely as dry hay, so it is wrapped or otherwise sealed in plastic. Baleage can be fermented as individual bales or in a tube or inline.
Both baleage and haylage begin with mowing the forage and combining into a windrow. The next step is where differences become more apparent.
Haylage is forage chopped using a silage chopper and packed in a bunk, silo or bag. Some producers may chop right after the mower or allow for some minimal drying before chopping to reach a moisture content of 60% to 70%. This is sometimes referred to as the wilt stage and may be referred to as silage. This is a common moisture for producing haylage, although haylage is more commonly chopped at a lower moisture content of 40% to 60%, which also is called low-moisture haylage.
Producing chopped silage is a tried and true method most producers are familiar with that continues to produce high-quality forage. Neighbors or silage crews can usually be found and are able to perform all the tasks associated with making silage or haylage.
Haylage may not be an option for producers who do not have the equipment needed to feed a silage. In this case, baleage may be a better option, with minor equipment changes needed to feed and with more management flexibility than haylage.
Baleage is partially dried forage, preferably 45% to 55% moisture, which is baled and wrapped with at least six layers of 1-millimeter plastic. Monitoring the moisture content is critical in reducing the risk of spoilage once baled.
The process of fermentation in baleage is slower and less complete compared with haylage or silage because of a more loosely packed forage (more oxygen), a larger particle size (less available sugars) and lower moisture, typically. The slower fermentation results in a pH higher than that of haylage. A pH of about 5.0 is present in the bales, which results in more challenging preservation during the fermentation process.
Advantages over dry hay
Baleage can create high-quality forage if done properly. Baleage typically has less loss during storage than dry hay, fewer weather delays at harvest and a faster turnaround from when the forage is down in both regrowth and time on the ground.
The equipment changes are not significant but need to be considered. Wrapping equipment is cheaper than a silage chopper, but handling bales requires different equipment than a classic bale spear or grapple.
Disadvantages include getting forage baled at the best moisture content, wrapping within the first 12 to 24 hours to minimize damage and quality loss, plastic maintenance if holes are made by the environment or animals, plastic disposal, and reduced ability to transport without proper equipment.
Baleage and haylage produce high-quality feed when harvested and stored correctly. High-quality baleage may be used as a cheaper protein supplement alternative on winter range. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
While distinct processes result in two different products, the terms haylage, baleage, wet hay, chop, and wilt silage often are used interchangeably in conversation. Being clear on the method being discussed is important when attempting to produce a high-quality forage for livestock.
Schick is a Nebraska Extension educator.