Hay harvesting is around the corner and with that comes the question of what is the most cost effective and efficient storage option. Baleage involves additional costs, but producers across the country see the added benefits compared to harvesting dry hay. Just like any storage method, baleage requires a well-thought out plan to achieve the desired results.
Dave Hartman, Penn State University Extension livestock specialist, explains that plastic wrapping bales for forage comes with many benefits. “The advantages are clear — reduction in drying time, better leaf retention compared to dry hay, no storage structures needed, and lower weather risk,” Hartman notes.
Storing hay as baleage also comes with some added costs. The Pennsylvania Custom Rate Report shows that bale wrapping costs between $7 to $8 per bale. This includes the plastic wrap and equipment as well as the cost of plastic disposal.
However, even with the additional expenses, producers still find plastic wrapping bales a beneficial practice. The technology is adapted for both large and small farms, and the large number of farmers offering custom wrapping helps smaller producers justify the plastic wrapping.
Producers often have their own preference of optimum bale moisture. Hartman explains that research shows the ideal moisture level should be between 45% and 60%. He notes that this moisture level creates the most favorable conditions to promote fermentation.
Studies show that bales with too little moisture have inadequate fermentation, but bales with high levels of moisture are prone to clostridial fermentation. This latter fermentation results in high levels of butyric acid and ammonia, which are dangerous to livestock.
Hartman explains that as much air as possible needs to be eliminated from inside the bale to achieve high-quality baleage. The first step is to make a dense bale. Next, ensure enough plastic wrap is used to stop airflow. University of Wisconsin research studied internal bale temperatures of bales with different thicknesses of plastic wrap and found that bales should be wrapped with a minimum of 6 mils of total plastic.
Another University of Wisconsin study showed that bales need to be wrapped within 24 hours after baling. Other studies conclude that the critical point for wrapping is closer to 12 hours. Hartman suggests wrapping the bale as soon as possible, preferably within that 12-hour window.
What about sheep?
The specialist sometimes gets the question of whether baleage is safe to feed to sheep.
“It is commonly known that sheep are more susceptible to the bacteria known as Listeria monocytogenes and can contract listeriosis or ‘circling disease’ more readily than cattle,” Hartman explains. “Also, abortions are common in sheep and goats exposed to Listeria monocytogenes. For these reasons, some stock owners will avoid using baleage for sheep, some use it regularly and report no problems, and some will avoid bales that show any signs of mold.”
Hartman notes that if you are going to feed baleage to sheep, minimize the amount of soil contamination because listeria is a soil-borne bacteria. Good forage fermentation is also important to help prevent listeria from proliferating, so make sure you bale within the optimum moisture range.
“The popularity of plastic-wrapped bales seems to be here to stay. Like many other practices in modern agriculture, close management and paying attention to details is required for success,” Hartman concludes.
Michaela King served as the 2019 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is majoring in professional journalism and photography. King grew up on a beef farm in Big Bend, Wis., where her 4-H experiences included showing both beef and dairy cattle.