While bale wrappers aren’t new to some regions, with the dramatic rise in hay prices, more hay producers are giving them a closer look.

During the 12 months between May 2011 and May 2012, the average all hay price received by U.S. farmers rose by nearly 17% to $199 per ton, according to USDA. The average price of alfalfa during the same period increased by 15% to $215 a ton. During the 2011 calendar year, the average price of alfalfa escalated from about $120 per ton in January to $195 by December.

When the farmer is wrapping up to 400 bales per year, the single bale wrapper is usually the more economical choice of equipment. Photo courtesy of Tanco Autowrap./Hamilton Equipment

As the price of livestock forage has rapidly escalated in recent years, the attention of hay growers moved beyond improving yield and quality to enhancing storage techniques and methods.

According to Jim Cummings of Cummings & Bricker, an equipment distributor in the Northeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., dry bales can lose up to 44% of feed value due to rotting when stored unprotected outside for up to six months.

This has led many forage producers who favor baled fodder to take a harder look at wrapping hay bales — both round and square — that can enhance feed quality while also improving its shelf life. This type of fodder is often referred to as baleage. In other words, it’s silage in a bale.

Baleage is similar to silage, a fermented, high-moisture fodder that’s fed to dairy and beef cattle. The term itself was coined from a combination of baled hay and silage. It’s another form of stored forage with a moisture level of the bales usually ranging from 50-60% and dry matter of 60-70%.

As one hay expert put it, “Silage or baleage is a common way of putting up a forage when the weather won’t cooperate enough to let producers put up decent hay.”

Gaining Regional Momentum

According to Cummings and other equipment manufacturers and distributors that Farm Equipment surveyed, interest in bale wrapping is gaining momentum.

“In areas where the process has been more common for the last 15-20 years, (wetter/cooler climate) interest is still strong,” says Cummings. “We’re now seeing increased attention coming from areas where making dry hay is not as difficult, but where farmers are seeing the advantages of feeding high-moisture silage bales.”

Lisa Gaskin of ProAG – Morris Industries, based in Montana, adds that while she hasn’t seen the high level of interest in bale wrapping in her immediate area, she notes a “lot of wrapping needs” developing in the Northeast and South, as well as in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

“I work with dairy farmers all over the world and I have seen a huge increase in wrapped hay and silage in the last 10 years,” reports Peter Boylan of Keenan Systems. “It’s most common on family farms that are milking up to 200 cows.”

Bruce Savage of ACI Distributors covers the Southeastern states and says he’s seen a significant increase every year since he began handling bale wrappers. “We started carrying bale wrappers in 2005 and we’ve seen a 120% increase in that business.”

In some parts of the country, notably in New England, bale and silage wrapping is considered a mature market, according to David Palmer of Vicon. “But it took a long time before it really started moving west and south.”

He says in 2009-10 the drought in Kentucky and Tennessee “really lit a fire” under this market when the USDA offered low interest loans to farmers in these drought-stricken states. “They pushed things like bale wrappers and vertical mixers, and this really drove this area toward haylage. This area is still on a very good upward trend as now both state universities are doing studies to show the advantages. Tennessee State is really into the haylage and has done a lot of research.”

Palmer also views the upper Midwest, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, as being fairly well established in haylage usage since the late 1990s. He says the trend toward haylage/baleage has gradually spread south into Iowa, Missouri and northern Arkansas. “I would say that it is still on an slow stable upward trend in these areas.”

He sees the most promising current growth market for wrappers in south Florida and Georgia where unit sales have been increasing recently. “A few weeks ago, I was in Texas at a field day event and several farms showed a high level of interest in wrappers.”

Rising Prices, Higher Quality

As the price of hay has escalated, so have user demands for higher quality forages. This, according to Aileen Hamilton of Hamilton Equipment, an equipment distributor, has pushed interest levels in bale wrappers.

“The major benefit is the feed value that is produced and maintained by wrapping, which leads to a healthier and more productive animals. Other advantages are harvest and storage losses are lower. Individual bales are easy to handle and allow silage of different qualities to be fed as required,” says Hamilton. “Plus surplus bales can be sold as a cash crop.”

Personal Experience with Baleage Demonstrates Its Benefits

David Palmer of Vicon, a manufacturer of hay tools and other ag equipment, also has had first-hand experience with bale wrappers on his Missouri farm. He shared his own experience with bale wrappers and what it has done for his farming operation.

“About seven years ago, my neighbor and I were putting up about 200 bales a year. Now, we’re putting up around 1,200 and using bale wrappers, and it has dramatically reduced our dry grass consumption,” he says

He’s found that he’s using about one-third less feed than he was with dray bales. As a result, Palmer has found he’s using fewer acres for hay production. “This has enabled us to run more cows per acre than we were with dry bales. We’re putting on more pounds with less feed, like corn, pro- teins and soybean meal.”

He’s found his animals are in much better health because haylage has a much higher level of protein than dry hay. “An old cow will need to eat around 35 pounds of feed in the winter and this is a lot of 5 x 5 dry bales that, on average, weigh about 1,200 pounds. So one bale will feed 34 animals. However, one 5 foot x 52 inch haylage bale weighs about 1,750 pounds and can feed 50 cows per day,” he says.

Palmer adds, “This holds true for the old standby Fescue grass. You can take haylage Fescue and it really becomes good feed while most dry Fescue is very poor in terms of protein and quality.”

He says wrapping his bales has also taken a lot of pressure off because he travels so much for his job with Vicon. “I do not have to worry about what the weather is when I’m home. Even when it’s raining I can put up my grass. It can be cut and baled within one or at most one and half days. I don’t have to wait for three or four days for the weather to be nice.”

What to Watch. “When you cut grass it must be baled before the crop loses too much moisture and it needs to be wrapped within hours — at the latest 12 hours from baling — so it is labor intensive for short period of time.

“Also you cannot put up as many acres in a day as you can with dry hay because you’re mowing, (and tedding in some instances) raking, baling, transporting and wrapping the bales in one day.

I started with a single wrapper for 2 years then went with a tube wrapper. If the farmer is wrapping up to 400 bales, the single wrapper is more economical. When wrapping 400 or more bales per year, the tube line is a more cost and time effective method.”

Other than this, Palmer advises that the baler needs to be a newer model that has the ability to bale high-moisture bales. He says most balers made in the last 4-5 years are capable of baling high moisture hay.

While he qualifies his views on bale wrapping by explaining his role today focuses on biomass, Jay Van Roekel of Vermeer explains, “Wrapping was something I spent quite a bit of time with and where I definitely saw advantages.”

Among these, he says, is that it not only helps beat the weather by shortening the time hay is on the ground during the rainy season, but it’s also better for cool and damp climates “where dry down is difficult in the best weather scenarios.”

He adds that in his experience bale wrapping also “decreased storage loss and improved hay quality, which directly impact cattle’s performance in weight gain and milk production. You could also add transportability. It’s easier to sell bales of silage than selling silage out of a silo or pit.”

The biggest disadvantage of bale wrapping is the disposal of the plastic film, according to Van Roekel.

“There have been efforts at recycling, but it remains a problem. Some would argue that wrapping is more work and requires more equipment and more time. They’ll also list plastic cost as another negative, but the benefit should outweigh those investments to improve the quality of feed for your herd. I believe that is why the dairy market has adopted silage baling more than the beef industry because they see the results in the milk tank and payment immediately.”

Factors to Consider

While Cummings also sees several advantages of bale wrapping for hay producers, he says dealers should also be alert to the “planning” and “handling” requirement inherent with bale wrapping.

He includes among the major benefits of wrapping hay bales or silage the following considerations:

  • Harvesting the crop when it’s at peak vegetative stage without having to worry about dry down time.
  • Faster re-growth when harvested at its peak stage.
  • Maximum feed value and palatability for dairy and beef, and some success has been seen with horses as well.
  • There’s no loss to wrapped bales stored outside. Dry bales can lose up to 44% of feed value due to rotting when stored unprotected outside for up to six months.

The special considerations dealers need to keep in mind when advising hay producers in the use of bale wrappers, according to Cummings, include the following:

  • The process requires planning. “The old adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies. Wrapping bales that have been harvested at the wrong time or wrong moisture content will cause mold or the formation of butyric acid which diminishes feed value.
  • Timing is important. Ideally, high-moisture bales should be wrapped immediately. This requires a machine that will both bale and wrap that may be difficult for the average size operation to justify. Without a baler/wrapper, bales should be wrapped within four hours.
  • Bale weight must be considered. A tightly baled 4 x 4 silage bale can weigh up to 2,000 pounds or more. Handling and moving them requires adequately rated equipment.
  • Although there are high capacity wrappers on the market, baling and wrapping round or big square bales may not meet the production requirements of large dairy operations that typically chop and store haylage in bunker silos.
  • Ideally, bales should be stored on a flat area. Punctures in the film from animals are not uncommon, but generally a puncture in a properly wrapped bale will not propagate or spread.

Equipment Potential

If the producer is wrapping 400 or more bales per year, the tube-type wrapper is a more cost and time effective choice. Photo courtesy of Tube-Line Mfg. Ltd.

According to the manufacturers, equipment requirements for bale wrapping can range from one additional piece of equipment beyond normal hay production machinery, to several pieces to aid in handling and transporting the wrapped bales.

Taylor W. Weisensel of Ag-Bag says, besides the wrapping equipment itself, which may be an individual bale wrapper or an in-line wrapper, growers often include bale handlers, haulers and slicers.

But Matt Jaynes, CLAAS of America, points out that handling the wetter, heavier silage may require an upgrade to basic hay tools, as well.

“They’ll probably need a good quality baler designed for silage,” says Jaynes. “A regular dry hay baler will not hold up to the rigors of silage. The rake also needs to be able to handle silage. The typical light duty rake for dry hay generally will not handle silage either.”

He suggests that manpower also needs to be considered. “If the farmer is wrapping in an in-line wrapper, the bales need to be moved to the wrapper as soon as possible for best quality. The bales will deteriorate every hour they are not wrapped.”

Jaynes points out that equipment is available that bales the baleage and immediately wraps it making it a one-man operation.

He says another issue could be the need for more horsepower than is required by a dry hay baler. “It takes more power to create a tight silage bale,” he adds.

There is a consensus among manufacturers that growers also need to consider an apparatus to handle bales after they’re wrapped.

Kara Burrell of Agromec Industries points out that new bale handling attachments are designed to handle the additional weight of high-moisture baleage while maintaining the bale shape integrity without puncturing the plastic wrap. Depending on the situation, specialized feeding equipment may be needed such as bale shredders,” Burrell says.

Biggest Challenges

While most equipment manufacturers see good potential for dealers to pursue wrapped baleage equipment sales, Savage of ACI Distributors says what may be the dealer’s biggest challenge is that many producers still lack an understanding of how these types of systems work. And as Cummings pointed out earlier, “The process needs some planning.”

On the other hand, Dr. Clive Dalton, a renowned ag expert from New Zealand where farmers have been wrapping baled hay for more than two decades, says, “Bagged silage or baleage has solved so many practical problems. The baler wraps the grass tight and the plastic bag seals it. It doesn’t need any more consolidation, so making a good product is almost guaranteed.”

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