Round bales piled under white plastic tarps and covered by snow mark the winter yard of Alvin Findlay, Snowflake, Manitoba.
Findlay stacks silage bales instead of wrapping them individually or in plastic tubes. He puts up to 196 bales in each pyramid-shaped stack, then covers it immediately with a 50 × 100' plastic sheet. After banking soil around the edges of the plastic to seal it, he uses a Shop-Vac to suck air out.
The 76-year-old farmer stumbled onto the method about eight years ago — he couldn't get a custom wrapper when a field of alfalfa was ready to bale. He had had a couple years' experience with wrapped silage at the time.
“I was left with 80 bales ready to wrap and no way of wrapping them,” he recalls. “I went to a lumber yard, got a piece of plastic and threw it over the top. And that's the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Actually, Findlay was bringing back a method that had largely been abandoned years earlier, says Fraser Stewart, a Manitoba Forage Council director from Selkirk.
“We started using that system back in the late 1970s on some of our grassland projects,” says Stewart, who was a provincial grassland specialist then.
“We used a double layer of 6-mil plastic over a pile of round silage bales. The plastic was sealed to the ground with soil. The double layer was safer in the event of a puncture or air leak, and we could anchor it much better to reduce wind damage.”
Spoilage wasn't a problem. But stacking and covering were labor-intensive, and strong winds sometimes tore off the plastic.
“For larger operations, guys aren't interested in that method,” says Stewart. “Bale wrappers have replaced it.”
But after decades of making dry hay, Findlay is well-satisfied with stacked baleage.
“I do it all as silage now if I can,” he says.
The feeding program for his entire herd of more than 500 beef cows, feeders and calves is baled alfalfa silage and oat silage.
“They don't need grain if the silage is in good condition,” he says. “Alfalfa has such a high feed value, they do well on it. Some cows are actually pretty fat.”
When he fed dry hay, cattle wasted some of it and fed unevenly.
“A boss cow always got in first,” he says. “With silage, it's all the same. They can't root around and pick the leaves off the stems. When the boss cows get done eating, the rest of them will feed just as good on what's left. They clean it up.”
Findlay also has simplified feeding. “I take the bales out and feed them in the pasture,” he says. “I don't use a bale feeder and I don't take the strings off. I just let them help themselves.”
His silage stacks are on a well-drained site sheltered from wind. He claims he's never lost a bale to spoilage using this method. He has a patch kit for punctures, but has never used it. The face stays open after he's removed the first bale.
Cost per bale for covering vs. wrapping is less than a third. And he isn't waiting for anyone else when it's time to make silage.
“All you need is your baler and your front-end loader,” he says.
At 196 bales per stack, the cost of a single 50 × 100' sheet of heavy plastic is about $1.60 Canadian per bale.
Findlay had 450 acres of alfalfa in 2005, and took three cuttings from most of it. He aims to bale at 40-45% moisture.
“Be careful you don't put it up too wet. We find that if it's just starting to dry a little bit, it makes a nicer silage.”
The big bales are as tight as he can make them and limited to 56” or less in diameter so they're not too hard to handle.
“We try to get the bales into the stack within 24 hours. The quicker you get them covered, the better.”
His stacks are up to 14 bales long and five bales wide at the bottom. The next row up has four bales, then two at the top.
Findlay also makes small-grain bale silage. He made oatlage from 80 acres, plus oat-alfalfa silage from 60 acres in 2005. He cuts the grain crop when it has full heads, just starting to ripen.
“If you put it up too green, it will spoil. And if you put it up too wet, the cows won't eat it. The oats last year were starting to turn, but the stems were still pretty green. It's a little wetter than the alfalfa, and it's more coarse. The cattle like it.”