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Beat the weather and keep your leaves

Jessica Williamson for Progressive Forage Published on 30 April 2021
Silage bales

Baled silage, or baleage, is forage baled at a higher moisture content than dry hay and then stored in sealed plastic wrap. The high moisture level and air-tight environment create favorable conditions for anaerobic fermentation and production of lactic and acetic acids that preserve the forage.

Baled silage is potentially higher in quality, protein and palatability than dry hay – and if managed correctly before, during and after harvest, results in less waste.

Baled silage needs less drying time than hay

Forages harvested as dry hay can be difficult to dry down during rainy or unpredictable weather. If the crop gets rained on or is tedded and raked multiple times, the resulting hay can have drastically lower forage quality than when it was standing in the field. Silage production lets you beat the weather because its ideal harvest moisture is much higher than that of dry hay. This reduces drying time and lets you mow, rake and bale in a shorter window of time.

Harvesting as silage also helps you better capture the forage at a targeted stage of maturity for optimum nutritional value. As plants mature, their quality declines because fiber is deposited into the plant cell walls and the proportion of protein goes down. Digestibility and intake potential decline as well, reducing the crop’s suitability for many high-producing classes of livestock, such as lactating cows.

Moisture content critical

Baling at the proper moisture content is a defining factor in ideal fermentation of the silage. Most vegetative forage crops have 75% to 85% moisture when standing in the field. Remember:

  • The ideal moisture for baling silage is 45% to 60% (Table 1).

Optimal moisture range for baling silage

  • Enough moisture should remain in the crop so anaerobic fermentation can occur.

  • If moisture is inadequate, fermentation will not occur and mold could grow

  • Too much moisture can result in seepage and spoilage with unfavorable acids and potentially harmful bacteria created as byproducts of improper fermentation.

Wrap bales properly

After baling, wrap bales in polyurethane plastic as soon as possible. High-moisture forage is prone to heating and spoilage if left unwrapped. If the bale is not wrapped in a timely manner, the internal bale temperature will increase and reduce the quality of the protein in the feed. Internal bale temperatures above 120ºF cause denaturing of proteins and reduce the forage’s nutritional potential.

Research led by Dr. Dan Undersander, a former agronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin, showed:

  • Bales should be wrapped with no fewer than six wraps of 1-mil polyurethane plastic.

  • If bales are made at moisture levels higher than the ideal range of 45% to 60%, more wraps are needed to ensure exclusion of oxygen from the bale and to keep the internal bale temperature at a safe level.

Bale density lengthens feedout time

Maximizing bale density can help prolong the feedout time of the bales after they have been unwrapped. A Penn State study found a reduction in bale pH and an increase in whole-bale bunk life (feedout time before the bale was spoiled) as bale density increased.

Proper storage helps ensure nutritional value, ROI

Bale storage is critical to conserve all the nutrients you baled. Proven best management practices include:

  • After wrapping, make sure there are no holes in the plastic – either in transport or storage.

  • Store bales on a dry, flat surface where standing water and weed encroachment are not issues.

  • Running bale rows north to south can help slow the degradation of the plastic from ultraviolet light and prolong the storage life of the bales.

Standing water can lead to spoilage if it penetrates the bale plastic and reaches the silage. Furthermore, densely growing weeds around bales can poke holes in the plastic. This can let air in and cause spoilage. Rodents and wildlife can also harm the bales by breaking the plastic. If you find holes, immediately tape them with a waterproof, air-tight plastic specifically designed for silage.

When you bale silage at the recommended moisture level and wrap and store it properly, you’ll get the most from your capital, equipment and physical investment in the crop. Plus, you’ll ensure the silage provides optimal nutrition for your livestock.  end mark

PHOTO: The ideal moisture for baling silage is 45% to 60%, which gives you more nutrition for your cows in return. Photo courtesy of AGCO.

Dr. Jessica Williamson is the hay and forage specialist for AGCO. Her expertise is in forage quality, management and production, as well as ruminant nutrition and the plant-animal interaction. Jessica is responsible for designing and conducting field tests on hay and forage equipment, educating AGCO personnel and customers on forage management, production and livestock nutrition, and working with the Green Harvest team on ongoing forage projects. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science from Morehead State University (Morehead, Kentucky), a master of science degree in animal science (ruminant nutrition) from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville, Arkansas), and a Ph.D. in plant and soil science (forage agronomy) from the University of Kentucky (Lexington, Kentucky). She is originally from a cow-calf operation in western Maryland.

Jessica Williamson
  • Jessica Williamson

  • Hay and Forage Specialist
  • AGCO
  • Email Jessica Williamson

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