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Preserving Quality by Baling Forages

Preserving Quality by Baling Forages

There is an art and a science to making baleage

By Jennifer Bradley

The weather patterns in the Midwest have shifted, it's indisputable. Farmers struggle more to dry forages and store them before the next weather front hits. Last month at World Dairy Expo , Mike McCormick spoke to attendees about making high-quality baleage with annual forages. He recently retired as coordinator at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center's Southeast Research Center in Franklinton, which lies 65 miles north of New Orleans.

"I love grass and cows," he said. The research station in Louisiana lies 200 feet above sea level in well-drained soil. McCormick says it's hard to raise alfalfa there, but rye grass and summer annuals grow well.

Preserving Quality by Baling Forages

Due to the various climates around the country, he says, making quality baleage is both a science and an art. Numbers matter, but a farmer must realize what worked one day may not work the next, hence the artistic part.

Baling basics
There are a number of benefits to baling hay at a higher moisture levels, including fewer field losses, lower storage losses (compared to outdoor-stored hay) and a timely harvest. In McCormick's studies, well-preserved bales have not garnered more than 5% loss over a six- to eight-month period.  He tells farmers to allow the baleage to ferment a minimum of 30 days, but preferably until 60 days before feeding. The lower the pH is, the more stable the baleage is, and McCormick says research shows that level can change a lot in just two months. 

When it comes to baling itself, an additional piece of equipment is needed -- a wrapper. McCormick says most balers today can handle wet forages well, and a wrapper costs between $20,000 and $100,000 depending on the type and if the baler is included with it. Farmers must also use plastic or untreated sisal twine.

"Regular twine will react with the plastic wrapping and deteriorate it," he says.

McCormick recommends farmers use six layers of plastic stretch film when baling wet forages, and then consider using inoculants with low-sugar crops. He says that other than alfalfa, the best candidates for baling include ryegrass, cereal grains, crabgrass and summer annuals. Cold-tolerant ryegrasses are becoming more available to Midwest farmers.

All of these are fall planted, and in Wisconsin, a grass/alfalfa mix usually works well. Dan Undersander, a University of Wisconsin-Extension and research forage agronomist, moderated the presentation, agrees with McCormick on this. Undersander notes that 30% to 40%t grass is optimum when mixed with alfalfa. That blend still provides the fiber benefits, but protects from a high yield loss in a dry year.

Moisture matters
A question McCormick says he is asked often is: "What happens if I open the bale early?" He said it's possible to do that, but then the farmer must be prepared to feed it quickly. "If it was baled with a high level of nitrates, the nitrates may not have had time to work."

Fermentation is extremely important in baled forages, as mold and bacteria can lead to potential health issues for animals.

"Make sure the moisture is accurate," McCormick says. 

At lower than 40% moisture, he says very few things can survive, but if it's too low, that's a problem too as mold will develop faster. He said he worries about those putting up bales between 70% and 75% moisture. McCormick recommends it be baled at 40% to 60% moisture. Undersander concurs: "As long as it stays anaerobic, it will be preserved."

McCormick also warns farmers to make sure there are no holes in the wrapper, and when storing bales, stack a few dry ones on the end and the wetter ones inside to promote fermentation.

When dry hay is looking challenging, baling earlier can be a way to preserve a quality forage product.

Bradley writes from Chilton.

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