Mike Lauwers still bales some dry hay, but hopes to eventually sell all his alfalfa as bale silage.
“This is far better feed than we ever before put up, even when we were dairying and using Harvestores,” says Lauwers, of Capac, MI.
Demand for bale silage is weaker than for dry hay, though, so it doesn't bring the premium prices it deserves.
“For the exact same quality feed, they'll pay more for dry hay than for baleage, on a dry, per-ton basis,” says Lauwers.
The bale silage market is limited mainly to dairy producers who buy all their feed. That's because those who grow alfalfa typically make haylage. They want some dry hay in their rations so that's what they buy.
“Our market increased quite a bit last spring just because dairy farmers ran out of feed,” Lauwers reports. “But now we're back to those who don't put up their own feed as the only market for baleage.”
His family's operation has been making bale silage for five years, but this is Lauwers' first year doing it on his own. He became a full-time cash forage producer last spring when a farm partnership with his father, Dick, and brother, Mark, was split. He got the forages, Mark took the other cash crops and Dick retired from farming.
With help from his dad, his wife Stacey, and employee Jim Hayes, Lauwers makes 4 × 2.5 × 6' bales from 360 acres of alfalfa and 200 of timothy. All the timothy and some of the alfalfa go up as dry hay. Because of the market situation, he bales dry hay when there's no threat of rain.
But he says the demand for bale silage is gradually improving.
“There have been a lot of improvements in baleage over the last 10 years,” he says. “When it first came out, a lot of dairy producers got a bad taste for it. It wasn't always packed or wrapped properly.”
Lauwers' focus is on quality. The silage must have a relative feed value of at least 140 to meet the demands of his dairy customers.
“Without any competing crops, we can make hay at the right time,” he points out. “We want to harvest the 360 acres every 28 days, cutting when alfalfa is in early bud.”
Alfalfa is supposed to be baled with its leaves intact, and free of soil and other debris. That's why Lauwers likes to use windrow mergers instead of rakes.
“Mergers are amazing in what they can do,” he says. “They're gentle on the hay and they don't pick up dirt. Dirt is the enemy of bale silage. Soil bacteria can cause mold and improper fermentation.”
A bacterial inoculant is added at the baler, and each 1,350-lb bale is wrapped three times with triple-layer plastic for a nine-layer seal.
Lauwers says the wrapper stretches the plastic so tight that the bale strings are loose, leaving little room for air. He sees that as an advantage over loose silage storing methods.
“Chopping injects air into the forage, and packing never gets it all back out,” says Lauwers.
Compared with chopping, the bale silage system is less fussy about moisture content, too. He likes to bale when alfalfa is 45-55% moisture, but can stretch some either way.
He can bale fast — 20 acres per hour. But wrapping and retrieving are more time-consuming. He built two sets of “squeezers” to handle the bales without having to spear them. Small holes in the plastic, like those caused from setting bales on hay stubble, seal up as the bale moves and are further sealed in storage. Any tears are taped.
“We want a tight seal. We handle the hay so the bottom stays on the bottom. When bales are stacked on top of each other, tiny holes in the bottom are sealed.”
In the storage area, bales are stacked and marked with a code.
“We don't use pads other than just bare dirt, but no vegetation is allowed. We don't want to attract rodents, which are a real threat to bale quality.”
A record is kept of each day's production, by field and date. Before they're wrapped, bales are sampled in the field for relative feed value testing.
Trucking is a big part of the business.
“We deliver on customer demand, year-around,” says Lauwers.