Every year, hay producers are faced with a dilemma that puts the practice of harvesting quality forage in jeopardy. The frequency of rain-fall events in the Midwest during the season’s optimum hay harvest time-frame can turn disastrous when harvesting alfalfa, red clover, rye grass, orchardgrass or tall fescue.
“In southwest Missouri, much of the grass hay and alfalfa needs to be harvested in early to mid-May for optimum quality,” said Tim Schnakenberg, agronomy specialist with University of Missouri. “Because of weather patterns during this time-frame, either the hay gets rained on or it gets put off to a later date.”
Often, grass hay gets put off until the heads emerge or after flowering, which causes hay quality to significantly drop in protein and energy.
As a result, Schnakenberg says more farmers are turning to round bale silage, or wrapped baleage, as a way to get hay harvested in a 24 hour period during this challenging time.
“Since weather forecasts are more accurate in 24 hours, this technology gives producers the confidence to lay down hay, knowing it will be in a sealed storage bag soon,” said Schnakenberg.
Round bale silage replaces the capital cost of a hay barn, results in lower harvest losses and leads to higher quality feed for cattle without relying as heavily on high priced feed supplements. This approach of forage harvest will also free up space in the hay barn for equipment storage.
“Round bale silage doesn’t automatically make good feed out of poor feed. The advantage is it preserves the quality of the standing forage because of less harvest losses from handling dry hay that shatters at lower moisture levels. It also removes the risk of quality losses from rain” said Schnakenberg.
In a study comparing red clover hay versus baleage, the crude protein of the hay was 16.3 percent and NDF (Neutral Detergent Fiber) was 49.8 percent. The baleage from the same field resulted in a crude protein value of 21.1 percent and an NDF of 35.7 percent.
Round bale silage is usually harvested at around 50 to 60 percent moisture levels, compared to the 18 percent moisture level for dryer hay. Many silage producers tend to prefer to stay on the lower end of that level, but there is a point where it becomes too dry to adequately ensile.
Good silage is the result of the proper moisture level along with keeping oxygen away from the forage as quickly as possible. Schnakenberg suggests wrapping the hay within five hours of baling if possible. This requires some preplanning to be able to get the hay harvested, baled and wrapped in the right timing.
Farmers who lay down 40-50 acres of hay in a day’s time will need to initially lay down 10-15 acres to make sure they can get everything done on time. Then as they get their system figured out, Schnakenberg says they can adjust accordingly.
“Another advantage that farmers often don’t consider is that if the harvest can be made on time at optimum growth stages, perhaps in early May, then there is a greater chance of high quality regrowth being ready to harvest in 30 days or so,” said Schankenberg.
Those same rains that are preventing the traditional hay cutting from occurring are helping the regrowth in the early harvested fields make more outstanding quality forage for a second harvest. It also keeps the alfalfa harvest on-time for the season, ensuring that at least four good cuttings of hay will occur before the season ends.
ıThere are several types of wrappers on the market but the most commonly sold wrapper today is the in-line wrapper that forms a long tube of round bales that are sealed for feeding within the year. These feature bales pushed together end to end, less labor and with nearly half the plastic costs of an individual platform wrapper.
Schnakenberg says it is important to have uniformity in the bale size, properly seal the end bale and watch for holes that will spoil a large area in the tube. There are several approaches on how to wrap the bales, but using at least four layers of 1 mil plastic with a 50 percent overlap is best. This 8 mil density is ideal for long-term storage says Schnakenberg.
Some balers are not able to handle a wetter bale so producers need to check with the manufacturers to see if their baler will work or can be modified. Also, producers must be able to accommodate a much heavier bale with their handling equipment compared to handling dry hay.
Tears or punctures in bales can lead to significant spoilage. Farmers who use this storage system must be willing to monitor the bales in the tube frequently and use the proper repair tape to keep the air out of the tube.
According to Schnakenberg, a challenging aspect of round bale silage system is what to do with the disposal of the used plastic after it has been used. The industry is seeking good alternatives for disposal but since the plastic is pretty dirty after use, it is usually unfit for recycling.
“For the hay producer who is tired of using expensive hay equipment to harvest only marginal quality hay year after year, this system of forage management may be appealing,” said Schnakenberg.
For more information, contact any of these MU Extension agronomy specialists in southwest Missouri: Tim Schnakenberg in Stone County, (417) 357-6812; Jill Scheidt in Barton County, (417) 682-3579; John Hobbs in McDonald County, (417) 223-4775 or Sarah Kenyon in Texas County, (417) 967-4545.