Baggers cut silage losses

Dairymen know they can bag high-quality silage when they hire Jimenez Custom Harvesters to do their chopping.

Jimenez, with headquarters at Clovis, NM, handles 700,000 tons of corn silage, haylage and wheatlage annually. Up to 40% is stored in 250'-long plastic bags that hold 400 tons each. Its sister company, Feed Bag, does the bagging.

"We fill 500-600 bags a year," says Johnny Jimenez, who with his wife, Vivian, owns the custom harvesting business. Johnny co-owns Feed Bag with Gary Ross and Lester Merrill.

They service mainly large dairies in New Mexico and Texas. While most silage is stored in bunkers, more dairies are realizing the benefits of bags.

"It depends on the quality of corn silage or haylage in the field," says Jimenez, a custom chopper for 20-plus years and in the bagging business since 1986. "But in nearly every case, bagged silage is higher in quality, fresher, and sees less shrink and less spoilage."

His seven choppers are equipped with crop processors.

"For corn silage, our processing cracks the kernel, breaks the cob and bruises the stalk for quicker fermentation," says Jimenez. "Some dairies prefer a longer chop. That requires removal of some cutterhead knives. This produces lengths of cut from 5/8" to 11/4". The different lengths are better for rumen function."

Moisture content is critical. Corn silage is cut according to the milk line and is best at 63-69% moisture, he says. Alfalfa haylage is chopped at 62-68%, and wheatlage at 66-70%.

"When bagged, these forages will ensile in a week if they're inoculated," says Jimenez. "It takes a month in a bunker. Bagged silage doesn't get as hot. If there is a problem with one bag, it's isolated from other forage. You can pick your feed more easily."

He says bunkers have some pluses over bags. Moisture sometimes is more consistent. More forage can be stored at a single location, and less intense management is needed. However, dry matter losses can be high.

"We have seen shrink for bagged silage at only 21/2%," says partner Ross. "For a bunker, shrinkage can be very high. You have to put up about 15% more feed."

Doug Handley, whose Do-Rene Dairy has 1,900 cows, has used Jimenez Harvesting and Feed Bag for about nine years.

"The quality from bagged silage outweighs any problems," he says. "Bags are especially an advantage with haylage and wheatlage."

Feed Bag maintains an "inventory" where customer silage can be stored in a central location. "In this service, we periodically take loads to their commodity bins from their inventory," says Ross.

His company has one Versa and three Ag-Bag baggers. Other companies that make baggers include Kelly Ryan and Sioux Automation Center.

The fee for chopping and bagging corn silage averages about $12/ton for a 20- ton/acre field. That breaks down to $5.50/ton for chopping and processing, $5.80/ton for bagging and 65 cents/ton for inoculating (at the bagger), plus hauling charges of 15 cents/ton per mile.

Those costs compare to about $7/ton for chopping, processing and packing silage in a bunker. "The savings (for bagging) are in the long run, through less shrinkage and better-quality silage," says Jimenez.

Bill Kautz of Chris Hansen Biosystems, Milwaukee, WI, sees bags as a viable option.

"But moisture is critical," says Kautz. "Some of the worst wrecks are when you put stuff in bags too dry. You don't get the compaction you should get. Once you open them, you get air penetration, and it's a real problem.

"But if it's in there at the right moisture and the bagger operator really knows what he's doing, you can get some really good material."

Gunnar Josefsson, a scientist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Dairy Profitability and Safety Project, says bags may offer a lower initial investment and lower annual costs than building concrete bunkers or upright silos.

"Much of the investment is in machinery, not in structures that are impossible or hard to sell if plans change," says Josefsson. "Low storage losses and higher-quality silage are advantages, as is the potential to reduce work hazards."