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Is the new baleage technology a game changer for silage?

Silage normally requires pits or silos and costs a lot to handle. Technology may be changing that.

Heather Smith Thomas

October 1, 2019

9 Min Read
Individual baleage in the hay meadow
Because of improvements in baleage technology, silage is now more applicable to small or extensive operations.helovi-Getty images

Cattle with high nutritional requirements such as backgrounding calves often perform better on good silage, but costs and handling have long been problems. Baleage now may be solving those issues.

Silage in piles, pits or silos has been the traditional way to store forage harvested wet and compacted and stored in airtight conditions, fermenting. In recent years, methods have been developed to wrap silage/haylage in airtight bags using plastic film. This captures nutrient quality of forages without losses associated with trying to get it dry enough to bale and store without mold.

Baleage technology has advanced dramatically the past 10 years, improving economic feasibility and transportability. The plastic film wrap can be used for individual bales or a long tube.

  • Baleage is a bale of hay put up wet and then wrapped.

  • Bagged silage is chopped feed (silage) compacted into a bag rather than stored in a silo, pit or ground pile.

Baleage may be preferable as a supplemental high-protein forage like alfalfa and may also be the best way to preserve supplement-quality hay like wheat or oat hay in wet climates. Traditional silage can be put up cheaper but spoilage losses are often high, adding to final cost. Silage requires different equipment to feed than baleage.

Bill Godfrey produces grass-finished beef in Oklahoma. He has used silage and is now switching to baleage. He says there are many advantages to this new technology.

“I’ve been doing a grass-finishing operation for 10 years, concerned about forage quality rather than volume, whereas cow-calf operations are more interested in volume,” Godfrey says. "They can get by with less quality and can supplement if necessary, whereas I can’t use supplements for a grass-finishing program when trying to fatten cattle in winter."

Putting up good-quality forage as baleage provides a quality product, and harvest is not weather-dependent.

“When you look at harvesting equipment today, there’s been a big change," Godfrey says. "Ten years ago, John Deere and New Holland both had something they called a silage special that was a round baler, but only a few companies were making/promoting equipment for baleage. Today all the machinery manufacturers have multiple products for baleage. More producers are worried about quality."

“For producers in my area, transportability is also a key concern. We all have pastures with cattle scattered everywhere. Running a TMR (total mixed ration) mixer on a big truck does not make sense like it does for a big feedlot or a ranch where cattle are brought to one location for winter feeding,” he explains.

Cut loss and spoilage

Dan Funke has a cow-calf operation and also harvests and sells baleage in northwestern Iowa. He says there are significant savings from baleage.

“One of the biggest frustrations in producing forage, no matter how you harvest or store it, is dry matter loss. There are many places in the harvesting process we can minimize loss. Many people do a good job of growing a crop but end up losing half of it, at various stages, through poor harvest management, storage or feeding,” Funke says.

“Density is important. If you are harvesting silage and packing it in a pile, there are formulas to make sure packing density is adequate -- enough weight (of tractors) on the pile at any given time in relation to how fast the feed is coming in,” he explains.

“It’s the same with baling and wrapping,” Funke says. "We started with a standard-density baler and went to a high-density baler, and last year went to a super-high-density Krone baler. The more you can compact feed, the less oxygen in it, and the better it will be. A loose bale is subject to some loss, and potential spoilage. "

He adds that it’s important to use enough high-quality film to get a good seal.

"You have one chance to get this right. You spend money to bale and wrap it, and a few dollars more for good film can make a big difference. If you don’t apply enough film you’ll have some losses. It usually takes eight layers, and might cost a little more but ensures good feed,” says Funke.

Silage versus baleage

Traditionally silage is a chopped energy crop like corn or sorghum, whereas baleage is a hay-type forage.

“With some grasses, forage sorghums or even triticale or rye, or winter annual cereal grains for stored forage, it may make sense to chop and bag them as opposed to cutting and putting them up as baleage,” Godfrey says.

“It depends on your situation. If you already own haying equipment, when you upgrade hay balers you might buy one set up to do baleage. You can lift the knives and still do dry hay. You just buy or rent a wrapper.”

Funke says silage can be put up cheaper than baleage but there can be tremendous spoilage losses. But as Godfrey notes, the handling issue can make baleage cheaper and more practical to feed for more extensive operations.

“Having an open face on a silage pile in winter is not a big issue, but in warm weather it can ruin quickly if you’re not feeding it fast enough," Funke says. "You are always feeding what has spoiled on that open face. On a small operation, baleage would be more cost-effective than silage because each individually-wrapped bale is fresh, perfect feed. Some people have a bunker or an upright silo, however, and that’s a great way to store silage.”

Baleage wrapping

Tubed baleage or individual wrap is another question

Application and need may be the deterimining factors for which method you use to store baleage, says Oklahoma beef producer Bill Godfrey.

“Individually wrapped bales won’t spoil,” Godfrey says of the comparison. “The tube-line is half the cost on plastic wrap but you need to put in 80 to 100 bales because the first and last two will be dry bales, unless you use end caps.”

When you open the tube to feed, exposed hay starts to spoil, especially when weather is warm, he says. In winter you can get by for a couple days without much spoilage.

"Some guys smash a dry bale onto the exposed end, but there will still be some spoilage--but less than you’d have on a silage pit,” he says. "If you do in-line baleage you should do long rows to reduce waste.

“In my operation, I could probably do tube-line but I do some winter annuals, baling and wrapping in May-June. We also have a summer forage we bale and wrap later, and possibly a late summer crop we bale in the fall. I’m not doing all of mine at once," he explains.

He believes tubes are most cost-effective if you’re doing 500 or more bales per year, and for his operation this would probably be cheaper, but he would then need to buy or rent a tube-line wrapper or hire someone to wrap bales on his schedule for harvesting.

"For harvesting, tube-line makes the most sense, but on feeding it I’m not sure it does," he continues. "I like individually-wrapped bales and the fact you can stack them. If you sell any, they’re easier to transport, versus cutting them out of a tube or row. In winter you might get by without feeding it up immediately, but in summer you can’t."

Iowa producer Dan Funke explains he sells 95% of what he bales, so it must be transportable. Individual wrap makes that viable. He adds that a person can transport in-line bales, but you have to take them out of their package.

Another advantage to individually wrapped bales is if you get a hole in the wrap it only ruins one bale and not a whole bunch of hay, Funke says.

Quality counts when performance matters

Like silage, baleage you can help you store many different crops and crop mixes you would not be able to harvest and store any other way.

“If you are concerned about quality, baleage makes sense,” says Bill Godfrey of Oklahoma, who is converting his silage-making to baleage-making. “Now you can put up wet hay if weather does not cooperate for putting it up dry, and you have a higher-quality forage than the dry hay.”

“It costs a little more to wrap it but the cattle are performing better, so you are getting some benefit for that higher cost,” Godfrey says. "For grass finishing, quality is much more important than quantity. Stored forage that might work for a cow won’t meet the needs of an 1,100-pound heifer that I’m trying to get to 1,250 pounds and grass fat. I need her to gain 1.8 pounds per day rather than half a pound per day."

“I can put the feed up wet and have more nutrients. If I have 900-pound steers on wheat pasture, the protein is a little too high, but we supplement with stored silage that has more energy and less protein and let them self-balance the diet. We get better long-term performance on those heavier cattle, rather than grazing winter annuals,” he says.

“In spring, once growth picks up and we can’t keep up with it, we back off on the silage because there’s a lot more sugar in the growing winter annuals in March and April," Godfrey says. "Protein content is going down and sugar/energy content is increasing as days get warmer and longer. I like to give cattle their choice of foods to balance their diet. They will eat whatever makes them fat.”

Baleage moisture versus quality

One concern regarding wet forage like silage/baleage is that you are storing and hauling something that’s 50% water. The unapparent factor that tips the scales may be quality.

"A 5-by-5 or 4-by-6 bale of baleage weighs about a ton, using the new equipment," Godfrey says. "Even if it is 50% moisture -- or 45% if a preservative is used -- and only 1,000 pounds of dry matter, the quality is so good that you don’t need any supplement. You have a high-quality product that costs more to put up and store but in the end may be cheaper."

Baleage wrap disposal

One problem with baleage is getting rid of the used plastic wrap.

In some areas there are companies that recycle baleage wrap, says Iowa producer Dan Funke. However, he notes the most common solution is a roll-off dumpster on the farm, and disposal in a landfill.

"In the big picture, ag plastic in landfills is insignificant compared to what consumers buy and discard—food packaging, diapers, etc. There is plastic around everything," Funke says.

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