Instead of building sheds to protect his hay from the elements, Larry Shirley wraps his round bales in long plastic tubes.

"The wrapper is fast, efficient and an economical way to protect my hay," says Shirley, who owns Sussex Vale Farms, a beef and dairy operation near Glasgow, KY. "And wrapping is very inexpensive compared to the losses I would have if I left the bales outside without protection."

Shirley bought an H&S Linewrap bale wrapper last year. Unlike models that wrap individual bales, this one wraps several bales together in a row or tube that can be several hundred feet long.

In addition to wrapping bales of alfalfa and grass hay, he also uses the machine to make 35%-moisture bale silage. He says baled alfalfa silage has tested as high as 150 relative feed value and 22% crude protein, and is very palatable. When he started feeding it to his dairy cows, milk production increased slightly.

Once a tube of bale silage is opened, he feeds all bales within a week to prevent spoilage.

Shirley's bale wrapper is made by H&S Manufacturing, Marshfield, WI. But a handful of companies in Canada and Europe make similar machines, some of which are sold in the U.S.

He uses about 50% less plastic to wrap bales with the in-line machine vs. one that wraps individual bales. That's because the bales are packed tightly against each other, eliminating the need to surround entire bales with stretch-wrap plastic.

Shirley's machine wraps round or rectangular bales. The latter can be wrapped lengthwise or sideways. Sideways wrapping creates wider but shorter tubes and reduces the risk of puncturing the plastic, since sharp stem ends aren't facing out.

After a bale is made, Shirley or one of his employees transports it to the machine and places it on a bale platform. A start bar is tripped, which activates the push assembly, moving the bale to the wrapping chamber. As the bale is pushed into the chamber, it's forced tightly against the previous bale and plastic wrap binds the bales together.

Bales feed out in a continuous line at the rear of the machine. Upon completion of the row or tube, a bale push-off is manually extended to complete the wrapping process.

Shirley can wrap 40 bales per hour. He uses three layers of plastic on each tube, although the company recommends five to six layers for bale silage production.

While Shirley is pleased with his machine, one Midwestern custom operator was frustrated with the in-line wrapper he leased last year. He found that it worked better with rectangular bales than with round ones.

He says it was easy to get rectangular bales packed tightly against each other for wrapping. But he had difficulty lining up round bales because they varied in size and shape, especially at high moisture levels. Also, he says the plastic cracked in cold weather when stretched over round bales of varying sizes.

In-line wrappers make air-tight packages if the integrity of the plastic is maintained, says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist. When tubes are used to store bale silage, he recommends checking them frequently and repairing any holes or tears.