“We wouldn't be in the cattle or hay business without baleage,” says Jonny Harris. “We make our money off square-bale hay and feed the baleage to the cows.”
This Screven, GA, producer and his father, Winton, run 400 Polled Hereford and Braford cattle and have a booming market for horse-quality hay.
While the square bales generally come from bermudagrass pastures, much of their baleage is from 450 acres of an oats-ryegrass-clover mix.
“That's our favorite,” says Harris. “That's what we give our heavy lactating cows and first-calf heifers.”
He starts the baleage process when the forage is at the same stage he cuts dry hay — prebloom or early bloom.
“You can put up baleage under most any weather conditions,” Harris says. “You never have to put up old hay with a silage operation.”
That's where baleage shines, says retired University of Georgia forage specialist Robert Morgan.
“The quality difference between baleage and very-good-quality hay harvested at the same time is very little,” says Morgan. “Plus, the cattle have to eat more baleage because of the higher moisture content. But the quality difference between baleage and hay that has been rained on can be tremendous. One rain on dry hay will take 20-25% of your quality out. The quality also drops dramatically if the hay is cut three weeks later than it should be cut.”
Even though baleage doesn't have to be dried down like hay, Harris believes that the moisture content is a key factor.
“I like to have it at 60% moisture, but I'd rather have it at 70% than below 50%,” he says. “If you put it up too wet, especially with legumes, you'll have problems. If it's too dry, it won't ensile.”
He adds, “I would like to wait two hours between cutting and baling. If I did, the first I cut would be right but the rest would be too dry. So I start baling right after I cut it. The first I cut will be too wet and the last might still be too dry, but 75% of it will be just right.”
He usually gets 12-14 tons/acre of the oats-ryegrass-clover baleage and around 8 tons/acre of bermudagrass.
Harris uses an in-line wrapper to enclose the bales in plastic.
“The manufacturer says to put on $1.80 worth of plastic,” he says. “We put on $2.50 worth. We get a better seal with an extra two layers and have less bird and rodent damage.”
Harris estimates that he has $27.50-30/ton of dry matter in producing and feeding the baleage, with another $10-15 for the equipment cost. But he says it's worth it.
“The oats, ryegrass and clover baleage has tested as high as 21-22% protein on a dry matter basis. The cows will lick the dirt where it was. There's no waste and our cows have body condition scores of 5½ to 6 or better. We don't have to feed dry hay at all, even when the cows are grazing winter pasture.”