W.K. Kellogg Farm Manager Brook Wilke discusses the practice of baling forages and why it can be a smart choice for Michigan farmers. This article was originally published in the Michigan Sheep Producers Association quarterly newsletter.
I grew up on a great farm in Nebraska, where the challenge with harvesting forages was not getting it dry, but instead keeping it moist enough to avoid losing all of the leaves during baling. Thus, I was in for a rude awakening when I moved to Michigan and discovered the realities of trying to dry forages in our humid environment. Luckily, the Kellogg Farm had just purchased a round bale wrapper, and I quickly learned the value of being able to make baleage.
Baleage refers to the product resulting from the process of baling forages when they are too wet to store as dry hay, and wrapping the bales in plastic to eliminate oxygen from contacting the hay during storage. Not only does this process make forage harvesting much less stressful due to the widening of harvest windows, it also can result in a few distinct advantages.
Advantages of making baleage
Potential for higher quality forage
Making baleage will not increase forage quality, but it can help you retain quality. Forages are at their peak quality at the time of harvest, and only lose quality during the drying and harvesting phase. The ability to harvest in a window of one or two dry days allows for a more flexible cutting schedule, and baling wet can reduce the time the forages are laying in the field. For legumes, baling with some moisture in the plants helps to retain leaves that are notorious for falling off during dry hay harvest.
More total forage yield
Making dry hay in Michigan takes at least two days of drying in the field, and oftentimes more than that. Every day that we are driving on the field after cutting results in delayed regrowth. The sooner we can get the forage off of the field, the sooner the new growth can get started without the stress of wheel traffic, resulting in more growing days over the course of a year. There also are more opportunities for making a fall forage harvest, when drying hay is nearly impossible in our climate.
Lower storage costs
The plastic that is used to wrap bales, which I estimate to be about $3-4 per round bale in our operation, does add cost. But, baleage is typically stored outside, meaning we don’t need a large pole barn that is needed for dry hay. There’s also no risk of baled forages getting rained on before we are able to get the bales in the barn, which can increase quality, but also reduce stress.
More flexibility than chopped silage
Chopped silages are stored in upright silos, or more commonly in piles or large plastic bags that are packed. These methods typically require large quantities of forage at one time, and offer little flexibility to segregate fields or spread out the timing of harvest. Baleage allows for a lot of flexibility, allowing separation by fields, forage type, quality and harvest timing. This flexibility allows for better ability to match up the feed quality with the particular group of animals being fed. Baleage also results in the ability to easily sell forages, and separate the forages by type and quality.
Late summer or fall is a particularly great time to consider making baleage in Michigan instead of fighting with the weather to make dry hay, or not harvesting at all. Many of our common forages can produce large quantities of forage in the fall, but endophyte free tall fescue is a favorite of mine. Tall fescue can generate a large quantity of high-quality forage in the fall and tolerates fall harvest fairly well. The process of making baleage can also increase palatability; tall fescue is known for having waxy leaves that can sometimes deter animals from preferring to graze directly.
When harvesting legumes in the fall, it’s best to avoid harvesting during a window from about late September through October, depending on your particular location in Michigan. These forages need ample time to regrow before a hard frost to replenish root reserves for winter survival. It is possible to take a very late cutting, when no more growth is expected. November 1 or later is generally the time when I think it’s safe in southern Michigan to take a late cutting of alfalfa.
Fall is also a great time to harvest baleage from cover crops planted after small grains, or on prevent plant acres in 2019. At the Kellogg Farm, we’ve been working on a cover crop blend to plant after wheat that will produce a cutting of forage in the fall, but also overwinter until the following spring when it will be terminated prior to cash crop planting. Currently, the mixture contains sorghum/sudan, oats, red or crimson clover, radish, rape and annual ryegrass. The key is to plant the sorghum sudan at a rate where it will produce significant biomass, but not outcompete all of the other species; approximately 10 lbs per acre seems to be a good target.
Finally, here are a few simple tips for harvesting baleage.
- Don’t worry about the exact moisture content at harvest; 50% is ideal, but baleage can be preserved from 25% – 70% moisture.
- Avoid dirt in the hay or on the edge of the bales, which can decrease quality. Using wheel rakes when the forages or ground is wet can incorporate a lot of soil into the bale. Dragging bales along the ground during the wrapping process can also result on dirt on the bale surface.
- Wrap bales as soon as possible after baling, waiting more than 12 hours can result in problems.
- Innoculants can help increase forage quality, but are not essential for good preservation. Mold inhibitors and beneficial microbes can both deter unwanted microbes and speed up the fermentation process for less dry matter loss and improved quality.
- Keep a close eye on the plastic wrap, and repair any holes (even the smallest ones) as soon as possible with tape.
- Use spray paint to identify the bales so that you remember what’s inside and when to feed or sell them.
At the Kellogg Farm, we are here to help with any particular questions about making baleage. Feel free to contact me with questions, at (269) 671-2509 or firstname.lastname@example.org.