Making wrapped large bale haylage, also known as “baleage”, reduces the risk of rain damage within shorter harvest windows. Baleage can provide excellent quality forage. Existing baling and feeding equipment can be used, and it comes with its own storage. However, the risk of spoilage can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when forage supplies are limited and hay prices are high. “Baleage disasters” can sometimes result in a total loss. Extra care is required when making baleage to avoid mouldy feed. There is little room for cutting corners.
Baleage does not ferment as easily or reach as low a pH as chopped haylage, so there will always be an increased risk of spoilage. There are many management factors that contribute to a consistently good fermentation of wrapped baleage and the subsequent “keeping ability”. The consequences of making mistakes are additive, so it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint why some baleage spoils while other baleage does not. Here are a few points to consider:
Wrap High Quality Forage
Avoid trying to make baleage out of mature hay with a low sugar content. Sugars are required for a good fermentation with adequate lactic acid production and a low pH. Also, stiff coarse stems can more easily puncture the plastic. Wrapping mature, coarse, stemmy baleage is often disappointing. It won’t turn poor quality forage into high quality baleage, and this makes the added cost of wrapping more difficult to justify.
Avoid wrapping haylage that was rained-on. Sugars are leached out and are not available for fermentation. Rained-on windrows also become contaminated by soil borne clostridia bacteria which is splashed up by the rain, resulting in a poor “butyric acid” fermentation. For the same reason, if possible, avoid raking to minimize contamination by clostridia bacteria. Do not use fields contaminated by manure, and avoid cutting too close to the ground.
Early-cut grasses often ferment more easily than alfalfa or red clover because they have more available sugars, and have less buffering capacity which makes it easier to lower the pH. This helps to explain why second-cuts, which are usually mostly alfalfa, are sometimes more difficult to ferment successfully and have a higher risk of spoilage.
Make Dense Bales
Make uniform, firm, tight, dense bales. These bales have less oxygen in them and allow less oxygen penetration. Large square bales are typically more dense than large round bales. Balers that are equipped with cutting knives produce bales that are more dense and more easily fed with less waste.
Size bales so that they are not too heavy for the available loader tractors to handle, or too big for the wrappers. Heavier bales are more difficult to handle without tearing plastic. With continuous wrappers, bale uniformity is important in order to avoid air gaps between bales. Use windrow and baling techniques to maximize bale density and uniformity. These include wide uniform windrows (no barrel-shaped bales), slower baler ground speeds, and using large square, hard core and round-silage balers with precutters.
Bale At The Correct Moisture
The recommended moisture for wrapped baleage is generally 40–55%. Moistures greater than this result in bales that are too heavy. Excessively wet bales greatly increase the risk of clostridia spoilage with butyric acid production, resulting in sour, foul smelling, unpalatable baleage. Wet bales are also more prone to freezing. “Too dry” is preferable to “too wet”.
Low Moisture Baleage
Some producers have had success when wrapping large bales as “low moisture baleage”. This is sometimes the result when the original intention is to make dry hay, but due to impending rain it gets baled at moistures in the 25 to 35% range instead. Although low moisture baleage can be high quality, it has a higher risk of spoilage because it usually doesn’t ferment as well and ends up with a higher pH. It can be very unforgiving if everything isn’t done right. This includes making dense bales (large squares work better), avoiding rained-on forage, wrapping quickly, repairing holes, and all the other management factors mentioned in this article. It is critical that low moisture baleage be covered with plenty of plastic and kept “air tight”. Moisture should come from the plant, not dew or rain.
Use Enough Plastic
Wrapping with insufficient plastic is a common mistake. The cost of extra plastic is minimal compared to the risk of spoilage. Bales should be wrapped air tight. Although a minimum of 6 mils (6 wraps of 1 mil) of plastic film has typically been recommended, 8 mils or more is preferable to ensure against tears and punctures, particularly with drier baleage. Because of their large area of contact with the ground and the streytching of plastic around corners, large square bales sometimes require more plastic to protect them from punctures and tears.
Wrap Soon After Baling
Round bales should be wrapped within 2 hours of baling at high temperatures and within 4-12 hours at cooler temperatures. Large square bales have a higher density, and don’t “squat” and stretch the plastic wrap, so they are more forgiving of delayed wrapping up to 24 hours. Plastic wrap is often easier to work with in the cooler temperatures and higher humidity of night or early morning, as opposed to a hot afternoon.
Location, Location, Location
Wrapping should be done on an area free of sharp projections that can tear the plastic, such as rocks and hay stubble. Select a well drained, clean storage site that reduces the risk of rodent damage. Stacking individually wrapped round bales on their flat side (ends) prevents squatting and provides more plastic between the bale and the ground.
Some spoilage is the result of moisture migration within the bales. During hot summer days the moisture vapourizes, and then during the cooler nights the moisture condenses on the cooler north sides and bottoms of the bales. The wet portions of the bales get a slimy, butyric acid fermentation, while the dry parts of the bale don’t always ferment enough and can mould. Setting up baleage rows in a north-south direction, or selecting a shady area in a tree line out of direct sunlight can help minimize this.
Rodent, bird, raccoon and other wildlife damage is a constant threat. Cats, dogs and kids should also be kept off the bales. Continually monitor stored baleage and be prepared to repair tears and holes. Be sure to use the appropriate tape, available from the plastic suppliers, that sticks more permanently to the wrap. Bad things can happen to baleage when you’re not looking. The bales should be located where regular inspections are more likely to happen. Carefully stack individually wrapped bales if possible to provide some protection and easier inspection.