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7 tips to make better baleage

Progressive Forage Editor Emma Ohirko Published on 01 March 2021

“Failage” and garbage are two possible iterations of baleage that producers should actively avoid, said northwestern Illinois baleage producer Kendall Guither. Guither is a commercial hay grower who has been producing baleage since 1997 and marketing it throughout the U.S. Midwest.

After citing his own experience as well as academic research, Guither presented several tips on how to produce high-quality baleage with a higher success rate to the attendees of the Ontario Forage Council Forage Focus webinar series on Dec. 1, 2020.

Here are seven of the tips suggested by Guither to avoid baleage pitfalls that could result in the production of failage:

1. Wide swath to capture more solar energy

“When we’re trying to do a good job of making bales, it’s critical that we get [the crop] dried down fast so we can reduce plant respiration,” said Guither. To achieve this, he recommended opting for wide swaths over windrow swaths. “You’re going to capture 2.7 times more solar energy per pound of crop with a wide swath, so that’s going to dry that crop down a lot faster,” he said. The wide swath allows for the stomates on the bottom side of the plant to receive more sunlight. Guither noted this allows the plant to “exhale” moisture directly out of the exposed stomate, increasing the rate of the dry down.

2. Beware of wheel rakes

“Rake selections are definitely a consideration when you’re trying to make good-quality baleage,” said Guither. Avoiding the use of a wheel rake when producing baleage is something Guither repeated throughout the webinar. He stated wheel rakes are fine for dry hay because the dirt being kicked up by the rake will largely fall back to the ground. However, with a wet feed such as baleage, the dirt will stick to the hay and increase the ash content of the sample.

“The bigger issue is the clostridium bacteria that is stuck to that dirt,” he said. Regardless of the type of rake used, care should be taken to keep the rake out of the dirt. “Dirt is the enemy of bales,” he said, because ash content will be higher in the presence of dirt; “more dirt equals reduced feed intake.”

3. Balance moisture content with fermentation

Ideally, the moisture level for the baleage crop should be between 45% and 55%; however, anywhere from 40% to 65% moisture content is acceptable, Guither said. He advised, for alfalfa specifically, that it is very important to keep moisture levels below 65%, as gases will start to form at higher levels, making baleage sour and much less palatable.

Conversely, Guither recommended keeping moisture levels above 40% in order to maintain the desired level of fermentation. “Too little moisture because you slow down the fermentation process and the amount of fermentation [which is also the amount of lactic acid] that is produced, [you are] going to invite more [bacteria] growth,” Guither said.

4. Account for heavy rainfall and atmospheric humidity

After reviewing research that looked at the impact of more than 1.5 inches (38 mil) of rain on dry matter loss in cut hay, Guither decided to see the impacts for himself. Halfway through baling one of his fields, Guither noticed rain approaching and stopped baling. He left the remaining hay, and it received 8 inches (200 mil) of rain and was raked and baled by Guither and his team the following day. Comparing the bales that had received the rainfall with those that had not, Guither noted the rained-on bales had a significantly lower amount of soluble protein and a significantly lower level of in vitro dry matter digestibility (IVDMD), meaning a reduction in the digestibility of all dry matter was observed. This led to a decrease in the quality of those bales, but Guither maintained they were still marketable.

Guither noted this decrease in quality due to rainfall often encourages producers to rush to bale to beat the rain. However, he cautioned, depending on moisture content of the crop, this may not be the right solution. Guither explained that it is critical to look beyond the moisture reading given by whatever equipment is used to determine it. He noted producers should factor in atmospheric humidity and add moisture points to the moisture content reading as needed.

Atmospheric humidity is often not accounted for by the tool or system producers typically use to assess the level of moisture in their crop; this may cause producers to bale sooner than they should. In addition to this, inoculant application is also impacted. Bales may not receive the proper inoculant application rate because the crop’s moisture content is actually higher than what it is perceived to be. An inadequate inoculant application rate will then negatively impact fermentation and, ultimately, the quality of the baleage.

5. Increase inoculant application rate

As a precaution, Guither said he typically applies double the inoculant rate to his field before baling. “If I do a moisture test on the field to see kind of where I’m at, I don’t know if I’m sampling a wet spot of the field or if over the hill it’s drier,” he reasoned. He noted this is a good step to take when a field is on the drier side, as the extra inoculant applied will help improve or maintain the quality of the baleage. Although there is a higher cost associated with the increased rate of inoculant application, Guither said it is well worth it if it ensures a high-quality product. “You’ve got a really, really good product there, so you’ve got to spend some money on it and protect it; otherwise, you’re going to go from something that’s 250 dollars a ton to 80 dollars a ton,” he said.

6. Choose a high-quality plastic wrap and start the wrapping process quickly

“This is extremely important,” Guither said. “Some [plastic wrap] is very good; some aren’t worth the box that they’re contained in to ship,” he added. Look for a plastic wrap with a low air-infiltration rating; this indicates the plastic is less porous and will prevent more air from passing through the plastic, negatively impacting the fermentation process.

Once a plastic wrap is chosen, there are some more things to keep in mind with regards to the wrapping process. Guither advised to start wrapping as soon as possible, even if this means taking a break from baling to ensure bales are wrapped within an appropriate time frame. This is imperative for bales that were baled below 40% moisture, he said. These bales generate heat and bad bacteria. “If we can prevent the heating, then we’re going to save more of the feed value,” he explained.

7. Wrap bales with at least eight layers of plastic

If using a plastic wrap 1 mil thick, wrap the bales with eight layers of the plastic at a minimum, Guither recommended. In other words, create a wrap that is 8 mil thick. He said this will help minimize heat damage to the bale. Having a plastic wrapping this thick will also help maintain the integrity of the bale throughout the handling process, Guither said.

If it is necessary to wrap bales in the field, Guither suggested producers add an additional two layers to the wrapping to prevent any stubble in the field from poking through and impacting the effectiveness of the plastic wrap.

As Guither noted, paying attention to the moisture content of the crop prior to baling, ensuring proper inoculant application rates and implementing a high-quality bale wrapping procedure are a few important ways to ensure the production of high-quality baleage  end mark

Emma Ohirko
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