Baleage has gained a following. The wrapped round-bale silage takes less field-drying time than baled hay and has a wider moisture-content window compared to chopped material stored in bunker or bag silos.
So says Kevin Shinners, a University of Wisconsin ag engineer who has studied its advantages and disadvantages and offers the following baleage advice.
“Since the bale is wrapped in plastic, it’s not going to be exposed to rainfall and snowfall, and you don’t have that biological degradation during storage like you do when you store a round bale outdoors,” he says.
“You’re also going to get a more uniform product. If anyone’s ever tried to feed a round bale that’s been stored outdoors, you know that the rind can be degraded, the bottom of the bale is almost like manure, and the core of the bale is in pretty good shape. But with a wrapped bale, you’re going to get a uniform product in front of your animal.”
Baleage has its disadvantages, though. Baled hay is more marketable, easier to transport, requires less equipment and doesn’t have film to dispose of. Chopped material ensiled at higher moisture has better fermentation, can be harvested faster, is easier to mix into a TMR and is harder for cattle to sort. But baled silage requires less equipment and labor than chopped material, can more easily be segregated by forage quality, doesn’t require a taxable structure and is “ideal” for small operators.
“Lots of people ask, ‘Should I wrap in a tube or should I individually wrap?’ ” Shinners says.
“With a tube wrapper, you’re only wrapping the circumference of the bale, not the ends. Our research shows that you’re using about 50% less plastic when you use one (compared to single wrapped bales).” That saves time, labor and money. But tube-wrapped bales aren’t portable, are less marketable, and can’t be stacked, taking more storage space than single, wrapped bales.
Tube-wrapped baleage may also incur higher aerobic losses at feed-out because one bale is constantly exposed.
“If you want to make good baleage, it starts with cutting,” Shinners says. “Make sure that you lay the crop wide so you’re getting all the solar energy you can. Condition that material so it dries quickly, and don’t cut too low because that will bring soil into the windrow. That also applies to when you’re forming a windrow; avoid using wheel rakes because they tend to kick dirt along with them. Rotary rakes, parallel bar rakes or especially mergers are really good devices to use in either haylage or baleage to keep soil out of the windrow.”
Harvest bale silage at 45-55% moisture, the ag engineer recommends. “At 55-65% moisture, you’re going to get great fermentation, but you get a wet, rank layer, 1-2” deep, around the outside of the bale.”
Forage baled and wrapped at lower than 35% moisture will undergo little fermentation. Those bales should be wrapped with an extra layer or two of plastic, and, when they’re opened, be fed as quickly as possible to reduce aerobic stability issues, he suggests.
Make a uniform bale shape and size. That’s especially important in tube wrapping, because it keeps plastic from stretching unnecessarily. “If you have a 5’-diameter bale followed by a 6’-diameter bale followed by a 5’-diameter bale, you get this funnel effect that really stretches the film. That tends to be a perfect place for oxygen to get through the plastic and into the bale.”
Avoid using rodenticide-treated sisal twine, which can degrade the film. Shinners recommends using net wrap, because it more completely constrains stems, reducing chances of them poking through film.
Wrap bales as soon after baling as possible to prevent aerobic deterioration, he says.
The plastic film, usually a blown, low-density polyethylene about 1-mil thick, should stretch 70-80%. “If you’re really aggressive on stretching, you may need to put another layer or two of wrap on to take into account that you’ve reduced the thickness of the material,” Shinners advises.
“High temperatures tend to make it more permeable for oxygen to get through, so if you’re wrapping in the middle of July, you may need to increase the number of wraps one or two more layers.” Also increase the number of layers at lower moistures, when the crop is more mature and when stems are particularly sharp, he says.
Wrap bales with at least five layers of plastic. A University of Wisconsin study that looked at temperature rise vs. the number of wraps on a bale showed that three or four layers weren’t enough.
“It really needed to go five to six or more layers to get down to those temperatures that we would like to see inside a bale.”
Don’t wrap during a rainstorm, because the film can lose its tackiness. Wrap as close to the storage site as you can to minimize handling, and don’t handle bales 12 hours or more after wrapping. “You have the potential, when you squeeze them, to break the film layers a little bit, get oxygen back into the bales and restart that aerobic phase.”
Store bales away from woods, where rodents and other “critters” are found, and avoid areas with sharp stubble and poorly drained soil.
Remember to periodically check bales for stems poking through or rodent damage and repair where needed.
If you open bales with a strong caramelized or tobacco smell, they have heat damage, Shinners says. “In all likelihood, you waited too long between the time that you baled and when you wrapped.”
A rancid odor, especially on the outside of bales, signals that the crop was baled at too high a moisture content. “You want to try to get that moisture content down.
“If you’re getting a lot of heat and mold at feed-out, that means you baled at a relatively low moisture content, producing little fermentation. Producers have had much success preserving wrapped bales at relatively low moisture contents. But because there is so little fermentation, it is important to use the bales quickly to prevent aerobic instability at feeding.”
Once baleage is fed, the plastic film should be recycled, since most states prohibit open burning.
“Even if your state allows you to burn plastic, it’s a bad idea because low-temperature burning releases dioxins, and those are known toxins and potential carcinogens. If you go to your state’s DNR site and, on the search box, type in ‘ag plastic recycling,’ almost every state’s going to send you to a site that will give you great information about recyclers who will take ag film in your state.”