Making and Maintaining Quality Baleage

Brady Campbell, Program Coordinator, OSU Sheep Team

It almost seems like a broken record. We have continually talked about the excessive amount of poor quality hay made last year and the issues surrounding how to incorporate it as a viable feed source in livestock diets. Here in Ohio, we have yet to have had an actual winter and the rain continues to fall. This weather pattern may be the new norm, thus we must learn how to adapt to these challenges. So, the question becomes, how will producers make quality first cutting hay that maintains a high feed value in the future?

The greatest challenge with making dry hay is simply getting the forage dry enough for baling before the next precipitation event. With this being said, how can we decrease this time interval while still maintaining a high quality product? The solution may be making baleage or baled haylage. Baleage is certainly not a new concept, but maybe for those that are not accustomed to feeding this type of forage. Thankfully, for those with uncertainty of how to feed this type of forage or looking for more information on improving their current system, on Friday, February 21 at the Ohio Forages and Grasslands Council Annual Conference in Reynoldsburg, Ohio attends had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Jimmy Henning, a professor and extension forage specialist with the University of Kentucky as he discussed the in’s and out’s of making and maintaining quality baleage.

During his presentation, Dr. Henning noted that the biggest issue that producers have to get a handle on when making baleage is determining the moisture content ‘in the moment.’ When making baleage, moisture should be between 40%-60%, however, this can be difficult to hit this moisture mark! Some may be thinking, that’s a 20% range, how can this be so challenging? The challenge here is that forages dry faster than what we think. When mowed, forages are roughly 80% moisture. Dependent upon several environmental conditions, wilting and drying time will vary significantly.

Do you have a moisture tester on farm? When making quality baleage, this is an important tool to have on hand. This range is considered ideal for baleage to properly ferment. Baleage made beyond these recommended ranges can be problematic. Drier forages will tend to have poor fermentation, but can still be fed if done in a quick manner. Some have referred to these forages as sweet hay. Forages baled at a higher moisture content has the potential to break equipment and be toxic when fed to livestock. Just as we always suggest with dry hay samples, it is recommended that baleage also be tested prior to feeding to livestock!

Another tip that Dr. Henning offers is that the best bales to make baleage with are those that are uniform and tight. These bales tend to have flat ends and will line up nicely in an inline tube wrapper. The key here is that we exclude as much oxygen as possible to allow for fermentation to properly occur. Tight, uniform bales are also easier to maneuver, handle, and wrap. Dr. Henning recommends that producers use at least 6 layers of plastic or more. He notes that 4 layers is enough, but at this rate there is no safety net! When wrapping bales, it is better to be safe than sorry. Speaking of plastic, it should also be noted that plastic does not keep out 100% of the oxygen. Plastics will slowly deteriorate over time as well, this is why it is recommended that wrapped forages be fed within the year as forage quality may decrease as plastic integrity diminishes.

Overall, this process sounds simple, but there are some pieces to this puzzle that you must be cautious about. For proper fermentation to occur, a pH of 5.0 or below must be achieved. When mowing our forages, we want to ensure that our ash levels are as low as possible as higher ash levels have been associated with toxic issues. One of the greatest concerns revolves around botulism, which is a toxin that is produced by Clostridium botulinum  bacteria. However, Dr. Henning notes that Clostridium botulinum fermentation does not equal botulism. Small grains tend to have more issues with botulism than grasses and legumes. Small grains in the spring are higher in moisture content (low lactic acid) and tend to have a high ash content due to tillage and/or planting which all lead to potential issues with botulism. These issues pose serious risks when determining how to feed this feed source to livestock as in some cases this will result in animal death due to ingestion of the toxins. Regardless if you suspect there to be an issue with your baleage or not, it is critical to have these feeds tested. You do the math, how many forage tests can you run before it costs more than losing just one animal due to a toxic issue?

Just as Dr. Henning did during his presentation, I will leave you with the two lists that he provided us. The first of which is key steps to making good baleage. This is a good rule of thumb set to follow when making baleage, regardless of your experience level. The second list outlines high risk baleage factors. These are certainly factors that we would like to avoid at all costs! Good luck during the 2020 haying season and may the weather be in your favor!

Good baleage:

  • Cut early
  • Tight uniform bales
  • Mow only what can be wrapped in one day
  • Bale at wet end of moisture range (60%)
  • Use at least 6 layers of plastic
  • Ensure that you are using quality plastic

High risk baleage factors:

  • Moisture content above 70%
  • Loose, uneven bales
  • 4 layers of plastic or less
  • A BAD smelling odor (butyric acid)
  • pH greater than 5.0
  • Ash content is greater than 11%