Pictured Above: In-line wrappers are faster than individual wrapping machines and they use less plastic in the process. This Vermeer BW-5500 features digital controls, air-tight wrapping and the ability to set the number of wraps surrounding each bale. Photo Courtesy of Vermeer Corp.
As profit margins for U.S. beef producers continue to shrink and, as one cattle feeder says, “The weather man isn’t doing his job any better today than he was 20 years ago,” interest in using baled silage as a way to reduce feeding expenses is showing considerable growth — especially across the eastern half of the U.S.
Baleage, or harvested forage ensiled at 40-60% moisture in plastic bags or plastic wrap, has been a staple for European dairy herds for years because of the continent’s predictable wet weather during haying season and the need to produce maximum forage from limited farm acres.
Because of similar climatic conditions, northeastern U.S. milk producers were quick to adopt the technology more than 25 years ago, and regularly benefitted from improve feed quality and increased flexibility because of the shortened “harvest window” possible with putting up wet forage. Meanwhile, as the financial squeeze on cow-calf operations in the U.S. continues, hay equipment manufacturers say the technology is now catching the eye of the beef producer.
Extension Beef Cattle Systems Specialist Kim Mullenix at Auburn University says there has been renewed interest in baleage among beef producers across the southeastern half of the U.S. despite its increased cost over using dry hay. Still, she says, the benefits of reduced forage losses associated with baleage and improved feed quality found in properly-ensiled wrapped bales is causing many cattle feeders to adopt the technology.
Twenty years ago, Iowa State University farm management specialist Ralph Mayer introduced the practice as: “Baleage, big bale haylage, round bale silage — these are but a few of the names used to describe high moisture (40-60% moisture) forage rolled up in big round bales and then wrapped in plastic for preservation.”
• Baleage revival provides dealers opportunities for customer education on proper bale ensiling methods through workshops, publications and demonstrations.
• Balers with choppers can satisfy smaller baleage customers who would balk at a $60,000 tub grinder.
• Knowledge of local forages that would benefit from bale ensiling can help sell balers, choppers and consumables.
At the time, he noted considerable adoption of the practice by dairies in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, but acknowledged much skepticism from beef producers.
He listed the following benefits of putting up high-moisture forage in plastic:
- Baleage can minimize harvest losses. Less handling and shorter drying time can greatly reduce mechanical shattering and rain damage. Estimates of dry matter loss when forage is baled with a big round baler range from 30-35%, with the amount of loss directly proportional to the dry matter content of the forage when handled. Forage containing more than 40% moisture resists mechanical shattering and loss is reduced to the 15-20% range.
Rain damage, too, can cause dry matter and quality losses. Long, cool springs, and high humidity often mean hay needs three or more days to dry. The longer the forage remains in the field, the greater risk of rain. Baleage, however, usually needs only a day or less to wilt prior to baling, greatly reducing the risk of rain damage.
- Low investment. Baleage requires a relatively low initial capital investment when compared with conventional silage systems. No storage systems are required and the primary use of existing haymaking equipment also reduce the cost of the practice.
- Flexibility. Baleage is flexible due to low initial capital costs (wrapping equipment). Large round bale hay or baleage can be made depending upon weather and labor factors. If weather is threatening, making baleage will hold down weather-related losses. Otherwise if the weather is favorable or additional feed isn’t needed, easily-handled dry bales can be made and the excess sold.
Economics of Baleage
In general, cow-calf operators with at least 150 cows will find the decision to purchase a bale wrapper and high-moisture baler to be cost-effective compared with using conventional hay-making systems, say Louisiana State University and University of Georgia ag economists who authored a 2013 joint economic study of the economics of baleage.
Krone-NA’s Comprima CF 155 XC baler includes an integral wrapping table for on-the-go baleage preparation. The German-built machines were designed with wet hay harvesting conditions in mind. Photo Courtesy of Krone-NA
“In contrast, producers with fewer than 100 cows are less likely to find such a purchase to be economical, unless they use the machinery in a custom hire enterprise,” their report concludes.
“Overall, however, the decision to use baleage is operation dependent,” says Auburn’s Mullenix.
“Remember the use of stored forage in cattle operations is a costly commodity. In order for baleage to work for you, ask yourself — does it significantly decrease my field and storage losses, and do I see an improvement in animal performance compared with my current system?”
Quality is King
Dave Patterson, manager for Krone-NA, and Josh Vrieze, product manager for Vermeer agree the interest in baleage by American beef producers is being driven by an overall focus of the animal industry on improved forage quality.
“The dairymen have driven the changes with chopped silage, chopped corn and round bales. Even the smaller silage bales are part of the trend by dairy and beef producers on improved forage quality,” says Patternson. “The dairymen have driven it with chopped silage, chopped corn and round bales. Even the smaller to mid-size dairies have gone to baleage because they’re not quite ready for a forage harvester, but baleage gives them similar feed quality.
“These benefits aren’t lost on the beef producer,” he explains. “We’ve had a lot of interest recently from cow-calf operators across the Southeastern U.S. who are looking for the ability to put up quality hay instead of volume of hay.
From the Producer’s Perspective
Like the technology of baled and ensiled forage, Hamish Harley came to this country from Europe. And, like the producers in the U.K., and on the continent, Harley and his family are using baleage to squeeze ever-increasing amounts of production out their 2,800-acre cow-calf operation near Paris, Texas.
“My parents are from England and they moved here 25 years ago,” Harley explains. “As our operation grew, we continued looking for more forage out of limited acres.
“We were accustomed to European weather where there’s a 100% chance of it being wet and with ensiling hay under wraps,” he explains. “We started with haygrazer years ago, but today we grow 350-400 acres of winter crops — winter wheat, Elbon Rye, annual ryegrass and oats for our 500-head of Brangus cattle.
Before baleage we used a tractor to go shake out hay for our 200-head herd and we farmed a lot more then. Today, we manage a lot more intensively to produce our own hay from our own acres, he explains.
“The more we produce the more we try to do,” he says, noting the winter crops are followed by double-crop soybeans, the bulk of which are also baled to run back through the cow herd. “We might harvest beans for sale once every 5 years if we get an outstanding crop, but generally they go right back to the cows.”
Last spring, the family saw 690 1,300-pound 4x5 bales drop out of the back of their Krone Comprima V180 on an 82-acre field. Currently, that field is back in haygrazer and Harley says they hope to see another 600-700 bales for roughly 15 bales of forage per acre for the year.
The Harley’s move their bales to an in-line wrapper
“Spring baling is important to us. We try to be prepared for the next year as much as possible and try to have it all done by April so we don’t have to worry in the summer,” he explains.
“We farm right on the Red River in the northeast corner of Texas so we can grow bermudagrass like you wouldn’t believe. But, summer is hot and if there’s a drought grass doesn’t grow. That’s why we like to get our baleage in as soon as possible. We like that.”
Seeing was Believing
Larry Powell has worked for Eubanks Equipment in Afton, Okla., for more than 20 years, and says when he started there was no sileage being grown or used in northeastern Oklahoma.
“We’re a Vermeer dealership, and our market area extends into nearby Missouri where many dairies are located,” he explains. “I’d deliver equipment over there and was always watching what they were doing.”
During the course of one of those deliveries Powell says a dairyman with a lot of cows told him he had quit buying feed altogether since he started feeding silage bales.
“I thought that wasn’t a bad idea for a guy with some steers or heifers, if a dairyman could feed lactating cows baleage with no supplements,” Powell explains. “The more I thought about it the more I began to think if you had the right set up and were ready to go you could work around the spring rains we get and avoid the hassle of wet hay.
“Two years ago I had some barley planted, so we harvested it as baleage and I fed my beef cows through the winter with it,” he says. “Within a short time, the cows looked 10 times better, their calves looked better and overall it was a very positive experience.”
Because of that, Powell and a neighbor have purchased a Vermeer BW5500 in-line wrapper and have their eye on wrapping this year’s crop of haygrazer.
“Five years ago if you’d mentioned silage bales around here, people would have looked at you like you were an idiot,” Powell explains. “Now, folks are beginning to see how cattle eat it and respond to it there’s a lot of interest.”
Powell says with properly harvested silage bales the protein can range in the high teens “if not 20.”
“With feed costs so high, it just makes sense to produce this kind of forage. You’re already feeding hay, so why buy supplements?”
Powell offers one caution to growers who think wrapping bales is a guaranteed method to improve forage quality.
“The big misconception is that any hay that’s wet is silage hay,” he explains. “The guy who says I wrapped some of my hay when it got rained on is going to be disappointed.
“You have to know proper baleage moisture levels are between 50-60%. If it gets below that level it probably will do some ensiling, but it won’t give you proper preservation to maintain feed quality.”
Weather Work Around
Dean Wade feeds just under 1,000 head of cattle per year in a partnership near Sterling, Ill., and he says his use of baleage is part of a resurgence of the practice in his area.
“Baleage was big in this area 20 years ago, but gradually it disappeared as the dairies disappeared,” he explains. “Now the cow-calf guys are doing it and finding it helps them produce a quality feed product and doesn’t tie them down to watching for a weather forecast of several days of clear weather.”
Wade runs an IFX 660 Anderson in-line wrapper plus a Kverneland 7512 single bale machine for his own use and that of custom wrapping for several beef and dairy producers.
“Last year I had 50-60 acres of rye in the fall that I baled in the spring. We mowed and wrapped 387 bales off the rye and ensiled it, then I put manure on the field and planted soybeans. I still have 100 of those bales left,” he says.
The chopped rye baleage, mixed with dry hay, is used in a TMR mixer along with distiller’s grains and gluten.
Wade says as with all hay production, it’s still a “matter of timing” even using baleage.
“Timing is what Mother Nature gives you, but if we have a couple of days of open weather, we’ll wrap.”
“The economics of hay harvesting is driving this trend. Farmers must get the most value out of the crop they are harvesting, so producing fewer bales with a higher food value is a necessity,” he says.
“Also, it’s much easier to find a one-day window to put up hay,” says Vrieze. “A one-day window is much easier to find than a 3-4 day window for dry hay.
“And, getting hay out of the field over a 24-hour period allows faster regrowth for the next cutting,” he explains. “If I cut and bale tomorrow, regrowth starts tomorrow instead of five days from now. Also, by baling at higher moisture levels there’s less chance of knocking off leaves — particularly with alfalfa — and that makes the forage more palatable to cattle.”
Vrieze says reducing storage losses of quality forage is very important since LSU studies show two-thirds of the operating expenses in a cow-calf operation are related to pasture, feed and forage costs.
Baleage and Beef Cattle
Kim Mullenix, Auburn University’s Extension Beef Cattle Systems Specialist, says storing forage as baleage can be done with an in-line wrapper that continuously wraps bales in a long plastic-wrapped “tube,” or by an individual bale wrapper located at the storage or processing site or one mounted on a “wrapping table” on the back of a baler.
In-line wrappers are more expensive to purchase, but they can handle more bales per hour and can use less wrapping material. They require no additional tractor and usually require less labor. In-line wrapped bales require a storage area large enough to accommodate the long “tube” of forage, and space to access the tube when removing forage for feeding — and a method of sealing the tube after it is opened to remove forage.
Individual wrappers cost less initially and produce bales that can be transported individually while wrapped. They also handle fewer bales per hour than an in-line wrapper.
What & When
Baleage can be made from a variety of cool-season or warm-season forages adapted to the region, Mullenix explains.
“Cool-season annuals are an especially good fit for this system for two reasons, however: 1.) They represent a high quality forage source when harvested at the appropriate stage of maturity, and 2.) growers can work around some of the less than ideal conditions for drying down forages during the spring when rainfall, cooler weather and shorter days make conventional haying nearly impossible,” she explains.
The stage of plant maturity at harvest is the single largest factor affecting feeding value of baleage.
“Making baleage instead of hay does not guarantee a better quality product,” Mullenix explains. “What goes in must come out, and putting up low quality forage only means a low-quality feed product at the end of the day.”
Given the need for proper harvest timing, the overall feed value of baleage can be quite high, however, she says.
“Cool-season annual forages often range between 58-62% TDN when harvested at the appropriate stage of maturity. Crude protein values may range from 12-16%.
“These values are often sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of a mature brood cow without supplementation or significantly decreased supplementation needs,” she says.
“In one study from the University of Tennessee storing net-wrapped hay on the ground with no cover, and on tires with no cover showed storage losses of nearly 20% in a year,” he says. “If those bales are encapsulated with plastic, storage losses drop to nothing.
“Those figures indicated if all hay put up last year had been plastic wrapped, there would have been 15-20% more hay available across the country — and that doesn’t count the increased feeding value of the ensiled hay.”