Mike Supalla's 1,400 alfalfa acres stand out in the midst of Minnesota's corn and soybean country. Even more unusual, however, is the fact that he puts his dry hay in silage bags.
His reasons: lower-cost storage and harvest flexibility. Dairy customers are pleased with his high-quality, mid-sized square bales. Their relative feed values (RFV) range from 140 to 190 and average around 160.
Known for its wet summers, Minnesota is challenging when it comes to putting up dry hay. But Supalla tries to bale at 12-15% moisture. Dry bales that come out of airtight bags both look and smell the way they went in, he says.
“It's mostly because I don't have enough storage,” explains Supalla, who farms with his wife, Gretchen, near New Richland. “And if it ends up getting to be on the wetter side, like 20% or higher, it ends up being so much better hay in a bag than it would be in a shed.
“If I put a bale in a shed and it's over 20% moisture, it would probably caramelize, turn brown and lose something in feed value. In a bag it will ferment — but I won't lose the feed value,” says Supalla. “The bagging system allows me to bale up to whatever moisture I want. It eliminates a lot of hay from getting rained on.”
This past year, Supalla switched to balers with slicers that cut hay to 4½" lengths — something his dairy customers wanted. More sliced hay packs into each 3 × 3' bale, which ends up heavier, too, he says.
The grower harvests nearly 5,000 tons of hay each year. While baling, he applies propionic acid to all hay up to about 20%, then inoculant on anything higher in moisture. Using an Ag-Bag square bale bagger, he packs 120-130 square bales into a 150' bag. His only modification: adding an applicator so a thin coat of acid can be sprayed on top of the three-bale stack.
“We use it on everything — dry hay, wet hay and in-between hay — because we were having trouble with mold on the top bales. I think it's because the moisture condenses to the top. By putting acid on that top bale, we've pretty much eliminated all outside mold.”
Last summer, Supalla refined his bagging system by making bales short enough to fit in bags without having to be turned. “That was my biggest gripe about bagging — it always took us so much time to tip our bales so they would fit in that bag. By accident we found out that, if we made them shorter, they would fit really tight.”
Not all dry bales are bagged, however. “At the first cutting we fill one shed so we don't have to take hay out of bags during haying season,” he says. “Then, when we get down to the last cutting, we probably leave one shed full and maybe half of the second shed.” One shed is emptied before cold weather hits, so Supalla can house his 92 beef cows in it.
Bagging is cheaper than building a shed; it's also cost-efficient in that it maintains a high RFV with virtually no shrink, he says. Not counting the cost of the $25,000 bagger, bought almost six years ago, Supalla figures it takes $2.30 to bag each bale. “The bags probably cost me $5/ton. But if you figure the shrink (from storing in sheds), that kind of erases the cost of bagging.”
It also has it over tarping, he adds. “Probably half the hay I put up is around 20%, and I'm better off with a bag that's airtight than with a tarp. And with tarping I'd have to figure out a way to keep the hay off the ground or the bottom bales would turn pretty bad. With the bags, the plastic goes under the bale.”
His biggest headache with bagging is getting rid of the plastic. The bags are unwieldy, with bits of hay still in them. The local dump or recycling center doesn't like dealing with the plastic for those reasons.
Supalla also has problems with mice chewing holes in the plastic, causing air leaks and mold on some of the wetter bales. “Most of the time, I feed those bales to my own cattle. Otherwise, I sell them at a discount. The problem isn't serious, but every year I do have a little problem with that.”
Cutting Changes Raise Hay Quality
Bagging isn't the only thing Mike Supalla, New Richland, MN, has done to up the quality of his hay. Changing from four cuttings to five, and shortening the 28- to 30-day cutting interval to 23-26 days, helped raise his average relative feed value score to 160 or more.
“When we were taking four cuttings, we were struggling to keep 150 feed value. When we went to five last year, we got 160-190,” Supalla says. “I think the days you cut determines the feed value more than anything else. The key is a shorter interval between cuttings.”
The weather, of course, largely determines when he cuts. “We have cut it as early as 21 days if we have the right forecast. If the weather isn't right, we'll put it off until 26-27 days. We've lost some yield by changing our cutting interval, but we've picked up a lot of feed value points — probably another 20-30 points.”