Twelve years ago, Kendall Guither started wrapping 45%- to 55%-moisture bales for baleage, primarily as a rainy-day backup.
Today this perennial winner in the baleage division of the World's Forage Analysis Superbowl puts up dry hay only in optimum weather conditions — when he can get the best quality possible.
Baleage takes a lot of the weather worries off his shoulders and helps him take six cuttings in his Walnut, IL, area where others get only four.
“I've always been an aggressive cutter to maintain quality; I cut a lot sooner than a lot of people do. For first cutting, I start at late-vegetative stage rather than late-bud stage. I want to be done with the last field by mid-bud stage. Especially first crop,” says Guither, who annually makes a majority of his 7,000-8,000 mid-sized rectangular bales into baleage from just over 400 acres of alfalfa.
“I get six cuttings because I start early and can stay on schedule. Then, too, I'm counting my cutting after it's dormant in the fall,” he says.
He plows up his stands every four years. “I seed in the spring and count that as year one. But even my seeding year, I get three cuttings during the summer plus one in the fall and I don't start cutting until June 20.”
In 1996 it was another story. He was constantly battling the weather, trying to bale high-quality dry hay in small squares and wanting to move to bigger bales while maintaining quality.
“I saw a bale wrapper demonstrated. I thought, if I have some hay that gets rained on, I can hurry up and bale it. Or, if it's marginal weather, I could bale the hay ahead of time.
“At that time, I had no idea of the potential of baleage and how much better a feed it can be.”
Not only has it won Forage Superbowl awards, his high-quality product also garners premium prices. Guither's baleage ranges about 24-28% crude protein and dry matter digestibility averages around 78-80%, getting as high as 86%.
He prices his crop using his digestibility test results rather than relative feed value. As quality changes, he raises or lowers prices. Prices are based on 80-82% digestibility. For every 2 percentage points of digestibility above 82% or below 80%, he adds or subtracts $5/ton.
“My base price is on a dry-hay basis; everybody's used to buying dry hay.”
His dairy customers like the pricing structure and the quality they're getting, he says. “They're learning that their cows milk better on good baleage.”
Several years ago, one dairyman plowed up his own hayfields after Guither assured him he could supply him with enough baleage.
“His cows made the decision; they liked what I was bringing them. He was done making hay except for six hours a year — the time it took to unload trucks,” Guither says.
Because his baleage is highly digestible, customers also tell him that they have less manure to haul.
Yet producing and managing top-quality baleage takes work. “With dry hay, the difficult part is getting it dry. I have fewer headaches getting baleage dried down, but I do have to pay attention to making sure I have a good-quality plastic, getting enough wraps on, getting proper storage and then keeping the mice out.
“Especially when I had some carryover, I was having a terrible problem with mouse holes in the bales, then spoilage and rot.” So he bought mouse bait and bait stations, which eliminated most of the problems.
Guither's passion for baleage and what it has done for him has extended to south of the border. Three years ago at an alfalfa conference, he met some Mexican hay growers and explained what baleage is. After visiting Guither's operation twice, they asked him to help set up their own operation to use during their rainy season.
“So we showed them how to do it,” he says.