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How long will baleage keep?

Heather Smith Thomas for Progressive Forage Published on 31 December 2021

Baleage (as opposed to harvesting forage as bales or silage) has advantages for many producers.

High-quality forages produced in the southeastern U.S., for instance, can be harvested as baleage when environmental conditions are unfavorable for hay production. Current recommendations are to feed baleage within nine months of harvest, but sometimes wet summers or mild winters reduce the need for utilizing stored forage this soon, and producers wonder how long baleage will keep and remain high-quality.

There was limited data on nutritional value of baleage stored beyond nine months, so researchers at the University of Georgia sought to determine if storage length affects the nutritive value. This study was conducted from 2016-20 at the Tifton Campus, using Tifton-85 bermudagrass baleage and Bulldog 805 alfalfa-bermudagrass mixed baleage harvested on 28- to 35-day intervals, baled at 55% moisture and individually wrapped.

Lisa Baxter, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, University of Georgia, was involved with this study.

“We have a hard time putting up dry hay consistently in the Southeast. Baleage is a way to protect the quality of high-value forages. As more producers began to incorporate forages like alfalfa (and trying to keep the leaves intact), it’s a great technology. We tell growers that putting it up as baleage does not improve the quality, but it does help protect and preserve what’s there. We still need to have a good-quality product going in. This is why we recommend utilizing baleage for harvesting alfalfa, bermudagrass and high-quality annual forages,” she says.

Jennifer Tucker (professor, animal and dairy science, University of Georgia) was involved with a baleage research evaluation at Tifton, looking at alfalfa-bermudagrass baleage production. “One of the reasons we moved toward baleage versus dry hay in this region is because we have multiple challenges for making dry hay, especially with alfalfa. We start producing hay in March, all the way into November, and those early months are our rainy season; you’ll never get four days without rain. Baleage is becoming a desirable option,” she says.

“When I started the baleage study, one question from producers was: How long can we store it before it has to be fed? We decided to do a storage study and core the bales at harvest, again at six weeks post-fermentation, at nine months (our normal recommendation for length of safe storage) and 12 months. The idea of testing it this much later is that when we get into a year like this one that is super-wet – with a lot of baleage made – and then it stays wet enough to get a lot of winter growth, there is no need for feeding yet. When the nine-month window hits, we still have baleage stored. We wanted to look at what happens to it while it’s still sitting there,” she explains.

How long will baleage keep?

“So we cored these again at 12 months. We found there isn’t much difference. There might be a little change in protein level or TDN from harvest to post-fermentation, but after fermentation, there was no significant change. If you have to keep these bales to 12 months, the quality should hold,” says Tucker.

The next question was: How long would the quality hold? “We kept two subsets of bales all the way to 24 months. Sometime in that period, we saw a drop in quality, but it was due to failure of bale integrity.” If the plastic doesn’t get a hole in it (allowing air in), the material should keep a long time.

“This is one of the challenges with a baleage product. The ones from 2017 went through two hurricanes, and the 2018 bales went through one hurricane. Also, we cored those bales so many times (and patched the holes) that they looked like pincushions.” It was difficult to keep plastic intact.

“After sampling, we patched them with double tape in an X across the hole, but after so many pokes and severe weather, eventually something will tear. There is data that says if a person plans to store baleage a long time, you should apply more plastic wrap. But in our study, we didn’t do that because our premise was to see how it lasted if a person had intended to feed it within nine months and then, for some reason, didn’t need to. So we just did the normal wrap to see how it fared.” Previously, there was no data on storage beyond nine months.

“We don’t see any change in quality as long as the wrap stays intact. A person could add more wraps if they thought they might store it longer, but this can become cost-prohibitive, depending on the quality of the baleage. Some of the alfalfa mixtures are very high-quality products, so it might be worth a couple extra layers,” she explains.

Some producers are already doing this, and some of this information may already be known (regarding how long the baleage might last), but when you do a literature search, you can’t find these answers. “We wanted to be able to say it actually works. Now we have three years of data on storing baleage for 12 months and two years of data on storing it for 24 months, which shows quality should maintain for these periods,” says Tucker.

“We don’t promote long-term storage, however, because we know it’s hard to maintain the integrity of the wrap. But we can assure people the forage might still be ok if they have to keep it longer than they originally intended.”

Another question from producers was: If they had some that was past nine months old, do they need to get rid of it, since they missed that window? “I view it like expiration dates on food in your refrigerator. The expiration date is more of a suggestion than an ultimatum.” You know it will probably still be good for a while afterward, if it’s been stored properly.

“You will know if you smell it. Baleage is the same. If it still smells and looks good (and not rotten), it should still be good. You can also tell by color.” The important thing is to try to keep the wrap intact, since it can be readily damaged by storms, wildlife trying to eat into the bales, etc.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Current recommendations are to feed baleage within nine months of harvest.

PHOTO 2: There was limited data on nutritional value of baleage stored beyond nine months, so researchers at the University of Georgia sought to determine if storage length affects the nutritive value. Photo provided by Lisa Baxter.

Heather Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.