Tuesday, August 16, 2011

High Moisture Baleage

Last winter at Premier, we fed our flock baleage that we produced. The previous two summers were wet and not suited for producing quality conventional field dried hay. The low quality forage was low in protein and energy and required supplementation for our gestating ewe flock. We experimented with baleage and found the results satisfactory.

Photo: Carl (in the tractor) mows with a mower conditioner. The mower has "rollers" which crimp the grass to aid in the drying process.

High moisture baleage is typically baled at 55-65% moisture, though this figure ranges even among forage experts. Moisture is determined through several simple tests or using a moisture tester. The bales are individually wrapped or are wrapped in tubes to prevent mold and harmful bacteria from forming. This makes each bale or tube its own silo and eliminates the need for indoor storage for quality forage. Once wrapped, aerobic bacteria (oxygen using) consume the oxygen contained in the bale and then anaerobic bacteria (non-oxygen using) consume available sugars and produce various nutritious organic acids, preferably lactic acid. The acid preserves the bale in a similar manner that vinegar (actually the nutritious organic acid—acetic acid) preserves cucumbers as pickles. Ideally enough acid is eventually produced to inhibit these bacteria and others from further growth, preserving the bales for winter feeding. The energy available to livestock may be determined by submitting a sample to a feed laboratory and have a forage test conducted for TDN (total digestible nutrients). When ready to be fed the bale is unwrapped and set in one of our Big Bale Feeders.

Photo: The double basket rake allows us to rake two windrows into one.

Photo: The single row shortens the number of trips around the field we need to take while baling.

Photo: The forage in this field is a clover/grass mix. This field was made into small square bales.

Baleage is produced similarly to field dried-hay. The main differences are that baleage is wrapped and there is reduced time between mowing and baling. The higher moisture percentage shortens the amount of time the hay needs to lay in the field curing. Since the bales are wetter, they are much heavier when compared to conventional bales of the same diameter. The bale is also packed very tightly in order to reduce the amount of air (less air means less chance of mold or of harmful bacteria growing). Baleage is moved with grapples since bale spears penetrate the bale or wrap and would introduce unwanted air into the bale.

Photo: The baler's cutter bar pre-chops the forage for better compaction within the bale. This produces very "tight" bales.

Photo: Due to the high moisture content and shorter drying time, the forage is baled while it is still very green and unbleached by the sun.

  • Less drying time with a minimal amount of sunshine. The common phrase used with baleage is "hay within a day". We can almost bale between the rain drops.
  • Plastic wrap eliminates the need for indoor storage.
  • Higher quality feed. The high moisture allows the stems to better hold on to the leaves, resulting in higher nutrient content and reduces the need for supplementing with protien.
  • Lower labor costs when feeding. We used to feed supplement to our gestating ewes daily. Now we only need to feed as often as the ewes finish a bale (typically every 3 days).
  • Little or no supplementation. This depends on forage quality. To determine our flock's needs we sent in samples of our forage for analysis to Dairyland Labs in Wisconsin.

  • Photo: Individually wrapped bales are easier to transport once wrapped. They also look like very large "marshmallows".

  • Added weight puts added stress on the equipment. This can be reduced by producing smaller bales. Smaller sized bales means we will have more bales overall. More bales translates to a larger amount of plastic used to wrap these bales.
  • Plastic wrap produces a lot of waste but we were able to recycle it rather than sending it to the local landfill.
  • Spoilage. Punctures in the plastic, low sugar content, air present within the bale and many other factors can cause spoilage.
  • Specialized equipment such as bale wrappers and bale grapples are needed. We also have a cutter bar on the baler which cuts the forage into 9 in. lengths. The shorter forage packs much easier resulting in a tighter/denser bale.
  • We have to be careful what gets baled. Too much dirt in a bale can introduce unwanted bacteria. When we mow, we cut the grass a little higher than if we were making conventional hay. Our rake is set so it the tines do not touch the ground and driving over the windrows is something we are careful not to do.
  • The moisture has to be just right. Too much moisture makes the bales very heavy. It also means the livestock may fill up on water instead of nutrient rich dry matter. Too little moisture and we run the risk of mold and unsatisfactory microbe production. If the wrong bacteria grow, fermentation does not occur and the bale spoils.

  • Photo: The first bales we wrapped were wrapped with an inline wrapper. It worked very well but we chose to go with individually wrapped bales for ease of transport.

    Individually wrapped vs. Inline bales
    Inline bales are baleage bales that are set end to end and wrapped on the sides. The benefits are less plastic used for wrapping. However, the bales at the ends of the "tubes" are exposed resulting in lost forage. Bale size must be consistent otherwise bulges and air bubbles may form in the "tubes".

    Photo: To protect the bales from curious livestock and hungry varmints (raccoons), netting is installed around the bales to discourage the animals.

    Whereas individually wrapped bales use more plastic but they can be handled once wrapped, inline bales cannot. We can move these individually bales without compromising the protective plastic.

    Photo: Photo: PermaNet electrified netting was installed around these bales since our livestock guardian dogs have access to the area where these bales are placed and the dogs enjoy lounging on (and puncturing) the bales.

    We have to take care where the bales are stored. Sticks and stems can puncture plastic so the ground we set the bales on had to be clear of debris. Curious sheep or a guard dog looking for something to climb on can puncture a bale just as easily, for this reason we set up electrified netting around our bales.

    Did our sheep eat it? Yes, they maintained excellent condition throughout the winter. We ultrasound the ewes to determine if they were carrying singles, twins or triplets. Ewes scanned with triplets were later separated off and fed baleage with soybean hulls for a protein supplement, otherwise no supplement was needed.

    Photo: Ewes and their lambs consuming baleage from one of our wire panel Big Bale Feeders.

    Did we like baleage? Yes and we're producing it again this year even though it has been drier than the last three summers. We still produce small squares to feed in our low waste bunk feeders but the majority of our hay crop is now wrapped up.