A forage practice I’m excited to see people adopting in this area is a term we call baleage. It is the process of cutting hay, then baling it green the next day and immediately wrapping it with plastic layers. The process cuts off access to oxygen and initiates an ensiling process. The initial equipment investment is substantial, but it is really an opportunity cost. Many people harvest winter small grains such as wheat or cereal rye from land used for grain crops, providing two crops a year. This reduces the amount of grass forage harvested for hay, allowing additional cattle grazing or grain/baleage production from land formally used for hay. While many are using indoor cured hay storage, a lot is still kept outside, reducing quality and increasing losses. If you are considering constructing a hay barn, I would encourage investing in a hay wrapper and hay harvest equipment capable of handling green hay. University of Kentucky Extension Forage Specialist Jimmy Henning prepared the following comments on the topic of baleage.
Making baleage is a fairly simple process. It requires rakes and balers that can handle a heavy crop, as well as access to a hay wrapper. Stems are not completely dry with baleage, so a conditioning mower is less necessary than with hay.
Inline wrappers are the most common type of baleage implement. These machines can handle more tons per hour and use less plastic than the individual bale wrappers. Remember the following points when making baleage: It is an anaerobic process. For the forage to ensile, the bale needs to be tightly rolled in the baler chamber to squeeze out as much air as possible. It should be wrapped with at least six layers of plastic and preferably eight. Use high-quality plastic that is treated to resist degradation from UV radiation. Be sure to patch any holes in the plastic with tape made for the application to ensure an air-tight seal. Use more plastic when transitioning between bales of different sizes in the line because this will stretch plastic leaving it prone to let air in.
The proper baleage requires carbohydrates in hay that will dissolve in water. This means that forage should be cut at or before first flower (for legumes) or boot to early head (for grasses) so quality will be high. During ensiling, the soluble carbohydrates in the forage are converted to acetic, propionic, and lactic acid, dropping the pH of the bale and making it stable in storage. These volatile fatty acids give silage its distinctive smell, and the low pH prevents the formation of molds.
Bale when the moisture content is between 45-65%. Moisture is crucial for good baleage. Fresh forage is around 80% moisture and can be higher in the spring. Cut forage needs to wilt about a day before baling. Baling hay that has been allowed to dry too long in the field may not ensile correctly.
This is a time-sensitive activity. Reliable labor and machinery are essential once hay is on the ground. Wrap fast. Only cut down as much forage as can be baled and wrapped in one day. Even delaying wrapping 24 hours causes noticeable heating in the bales, lowering available carbohydrates for ensiling as well as the quality of the ensiled product.
Low pH stabilizes baleage. Ideally, the bales should ensile for 30 days before feeding. Feeding sooner than 30 days after wrapping will not harm livestock, but the bunk life of this forage will be reduced.
Though extremely rare and preventable, one issue with hay not ensiled correctly is botulism. Botulism toxicity is caused by the excessive growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria in haylage that has been baled too wet (above 60% moisture content) and has a pH above 4.5. Clostridium bacteria are common in Kentucky soil and in the carcasses of decaying animals. Forage can become contaminated during raking, baling, or from dead animals that get trapped in the baled forage. The risk of botulism toxicity from baleage is minimized by baling at a moisture content of less than 60%, using at least four layers of plastic, and preventing puncture damage to plastic during storage. If botulism toxicity is suspected, analyze a sample of the forage for pH and moisture content at a certified forage laboratory. The smell is the indicator botulism could exist in the hay. Ensiled hay has a familiar, pleasant aroma; botulism-infected hay will have an unpleasant, rotten odor.
Clint Hardy is the agricultural extension agent for the Daviess County Extension Office. He can be reached at 270-685-8480.