Baleage can be top-quality forage, but there's less room for error than with chopped silage, says Les Vough.

“Some of the best silage I have seen has come out of plastic,” says Vough, recently retired University of Maryland extension forage agronomist. “On the other hand, some of the worst silage I've seen has also come out of plastic.”

Fermentation occurs much more slowly in baleage, and there's a greater likelihood of reduced or incomplete fermentation, resulting in a more unstable silage.

“This means that greater emphasis must be put on good silage-making processes, including the exclusion of oxygen,” says Vough. “Every bale is a separate mini-silo having its own unique conditions for fermentation and storage.”

He lists eight key management practices to help ensure success with a baleage system:

  • Start with high-quality forage.

    “We need to try to avoid using overmature or rained-on forage in a baleage system,” he says. “Generally, these materials will not have sufficient sugar to support fermentation.”

    Early cut grasses have more sugar than alfalfa, so alfalfa-grass mixtures may work better for baleage than pure alfalfa, says Vough.

  • Bale at proper moisture content.

    “This is the single most important practice that may affect the success with baleage,” he says. “The ideal moisture content is in the range of 50-60%.”

    Some growers make baleage at much lower moisture levels, but outside that range, the chances for something to go wrong increase.

  • Make tight, dense bales.

    Big square bales are usually denser than round ones, and variable-chamber round balers make denser packages than fixed-chamber models. Slicing or precutting the forage as it's being baled also increases bale density and aids fermentation.

    Bale wide windrows using a lower field speed than when baling dry hay. Stems should be parallel with the direction of travel, like when they leave the mower-conditioner.

    “Tedding should be avoided unless absolutely necessary,” says Vough. “With tedded material, you have stems every which direction, and it's not going to pack as tight.”

  • Make uniform and correct-sized bales.

    Uniformity is especially important with continuous wrappers and in-line tubes to avoid air gaps between bales.

    “Be sure that bales aren't too heavy for loaders and wrapping/stuffing equipment to handle,” Vough adds. “Heavier bales are more difficult to handle without tearing the plastic.”

  • Wrap or bag tightly as soon as possible after baling.

    Round bales should be covered within two hours; four to 12 hours in cool weather. With large square bales, you can sometimes get by waiting up to 24 hours.

  • Use sufficient plastic with an ultraviolet-radiation inhibitor.

    Bales should be covered with at least 6 mils of plastic — four layers of 1.5-mil plastic or six layers of 1-mil plastic. If bales will be stored until late spring or early summer, consider using 8 mils, says Vough.

    “We want to overlap our plastic about 50% and stretch it 50-55% to get the desired tension,” he says. “And do not wrap in a rain; water will affect the seal of the plastic.”

  • Wrap and store in a proper location.

    Pick a mowed, grassy area protected from wind and direct sunlight. It should be a convenient location so bales can be checked weekly. Stack bales to reduce exposure to direct sunlight.

    “Stack round bales on the flat ends rather than the round ends,” Vough advises. “Not only will it reduce squatting, but you'll also have more layers of plastic between the bale and the soil.”

  • Repair tears and holes using tape designed for that purpose.