Somewhere between the territories of dry hay making and chopping silage is the land of silage. Its area is expanding at a rate that would earn the compliments of the former Macedonian king and conqueror of all lands, Alexander the Great. Of course, Alex is no longer with us to offer such congratulations or a lot of other things, for that matter.
As a prominent beef seed producer told me a few years ago, “Baleage is a game-changer for the beef industry. But making silage isn’t just about beef production. Dairy farmers and many contract pickers are also members of the Baleage Fan Club.
The increase in silage production in humid regions is relatively easy to explain. Although there are additional expenses involved, they are much lower than that of a traditional wrapped silage system. Farm units that are already set up to use large round or square bales can just as easily use silage. The ability to harvest and store very moist hay shortens the wilting time required, a real benefit where rain and humidity characterize the agricultural landscape.
It is the shortened drying time and reduced crop losses that translate into the most direct economic benefit for silage; it offers the possibility of obtaining more yield with better quality forage. On beef farms, silage often replaces complementary feed.
One of the main advantages of silage, which may not be considered initially, is perhaps less waste when feeding. After incorporating silage into a feeding schedule, this is often one of the first observations made, and the difference in waste can be up to a 15% advantage for very wet forage.
A few years ago, extension specialists at Iowa State University estimated a saving of 33 cents per head per day for a winter cow-calf diet with bales compared to dry hay fed in a feed trough. annular. The benefit comes from better forage quality, lower supplement cost and reduced waste. With a higher cost for hay and supplement this year, the cost savings are likely even greater.
Last spring I visited a beef producer who told me he had not started silage due to the reduced wilt time compared to dry hay; they adopted a silage system to overcome drought years. Baleage offered them a system to make additional high-quality foods in early spring from winter annuals planted in the fall. If summer pastures close, they have prepackaged pastures to fall back on.
One of the precipitates of the silage revolution was the packaging of low moisture hay. This comes in the form of wrapping hay that contains 18-35% moisture, or “soft hay,” as it is sometimes called, or wrapping dry hay with less than 18% moisture. In the latter case, plastic is simply a replacement for a hay barn which may not be available in a rented home or farm.
Packaging hay that contains 18-35% moisture produces a product that has a “sweet” odor but does not undergo fermentation. The key to success with this practice is the exclusion of oxygen. In other words, don’t skimp on plastic. Many producers use eight to ten diapers.
With extensive producer experience and significant research effort over the past few years, the recipe for making top notch silages – as opposed to failing – is no secret. Virtually any hay type crop can be harvested and wrapped successfully, although some are easier than others, depending on their ability to undergo rapid and complete fermentation.
The long list of practices accumulated from the experience and research of producers that will lead to successful silage production include:
1. Have the right equipment. Everything, including the bale tractor, baler, and all bale moving equipment, needs to be stronger and more powerful to handle the heaviest bales.
2. Do not cut more hay than you can wrap. Remember that this is a system where one operation will impact the next.
3. Target a baling humidity range of 50% to 60% for optimal fermentation. In some cases, plus or minus 5% of this range may also result in an acceptable product. Invest in a good moisture meter or use a microwave and scale to check the moisture content. Don’t guess.
4. Make dense balls; they wrap and keep better. This may require a slower baling ground speed and a higher PTO speed. Research has shown that dense bales (at least 8-10 pounds per cubic foot) have a lower pH and provide extended life.
5. Wrap bales as soon as possible after baling. Most research shows that a reasonable goal is to have everything packed within 12 hours of baling, but the sooner the better. If the forage is heated before it is packaged, the buffering capacity of the feed increases and it becomes more difficult to achieve good fermentation.
6. Select a suitable site for storage, ideally on a level rock surface. Make sure the balls do not obstruct the natural flow of water. Store bales where the integrity of the plastic can be preserved, away from trees where branches may fall. Control weed growth in the storage area, but do not place bales over freshly mown areas where coarse thatch can puncture the plastic wrap. Stored balls should be checked regularly for damage from wildlife and rodents. Immediately repair the holes in the plastic.
7. For inline wrappers, make sure the bales are uniform in size and tight together, preventing air pockets from forming.
8. Store and inventory the bales according to the quality of the forage. Many growers use spray paint to mark the outside of individual balls or line wraps with field information. Target the highest quality feeds for growing or lactating classes of livestock.
9. Feed bales within nine months of harvest, as forage quality begins to deteriorate after this point. It is also desirable to let the balls ferment for at least eight weeks before feeding them. Finally, use a feeding system that will not promote waste.