Baleage: Advantageous for first cutting hay

Given the challenge of frequent rain making it hard to produce dry hay, baleage presents itself as a viable alternative option.

May 16, 2024

3 Min Read

Makenzie Hereth, IBC communications intern, and Beth Reynolds, ISU extension program specialist

As we approach our first cutting of alfalfa, we have had consistent rainfall. This has been beneficial in relieving some of our drought conditions, but frequent rainfalls can be a hindrance in making dry hay. An alternative option is baleage. Baleage can be cut and harvested more quickly than dry hay since it is baled at a higher moisture content (40-60%). This makes the harvest window much smaller. Additionally, baleage provides advantages when feeding cattle. Baleage provides a high-quality, palatable product, with less dry matter (DM) losses during harvest.

When to cut

The forage crop should be cut at the maturity stage that combines yields and quality sufficient for a producer's feeding requirements. Legumes should be cut at 10% bloom and grasses should be cut at the boot stage. Early maturating forage is the ideal timeframe, to ensure there are enough soluble carbohydrates for ensiling.  For alfalfa, a good estimation for the first cutting harvest timing can be completed using PEAQ method.

For both legume and grass species, nutritional quality declines as plants mature. Cutting at an early maturity stage is not only important to ensure a high-quality feed but also beneficial in achieving good fermentation because anaerobic bacteria need adequate highly soluble carbohydrates to grow. Cutting at this early maturity stage will produce good baleage and optimal feed value per acre. Producers should also ensure they bale at the proper moisture content. The optimal moisture for baleage is much higher than dry hay, 40-60%. This is typically achieved with a mower-conditioner, and a short wilting period in the field. Baling at too high of moisture content >60% can lead to clostridium growth and botulism. On the other hand, too dry of material leads to poor packing and an aerobic environment that can lead to bacteria and mold growth.

General management goals

Once producers cut their baleage, it must be handled properly during harvest and stored correctly. Baleage is baled at 40-60% moisture and then wrapped to create an airtight seal. When baling, a slow ground speed can help create a densely packed bale to create a more anaerobic environment. Wrapping in net wrap can also be beneficial to prevent twigs and stems from puncturing the plastic.

For ideal storage, apply 6-8 layers of plastic within twelve hours of baling. This will create a good barrier to exclude oxygen. Between respiration and microbial activity, they quickly use the oxygen available, creating an anaerobic environment.

An anaerobic environment is key for fermentation. Anaerobic bacteria on the plants use plant sugars to create lactic acid, decreasing the pH, and creating a stable environment. This will lead to some losses in carbohydrates, but considerably less in comparison to raking, tedding, and baling dry hay.

Exposure to oxygen leads to the growth of yeasts and molds, resulting in dry matter loss, increased concentrations in fiber components, and decreased energy density.  Handling the bales is important to not puncture holes or cause deterioration of the plastic barrier.

The advantages

There are clear advantages when it comes to baleage. There is an increased potential to harvest at optimum maturity, and better leaf retention.
Here are some of the benefits producers should consider when thinking about making baleage:

  • Gives a greater ability to harvest forage at an ideal maturity since it can be baled at a higher moisture.

  • Allows producers to better control their cutting schedule.

  • Better dry matter retention; lower harvest losses/leaf shatter.

  • Requires one-half to one-third drying time in comparison to regular hay.

  • Better palatability than dry hay.

The disadvantages

No harvest method is perfect, and disadvantages for harvesting hay as baleage exist as well and should be considered by producers:

  • Requires investment in a wrapper or a custom harvest crew.

  • Before feed can be utilized, wait at least 6 weeks to ensure proper ensiling.

  • Bales are typically 2/3 the size of dry round bales due to their weight. Larger equipment is needed for handling and transportation.

  • Baleage is hard to market and transport and is often utilized within the operation.

  • Must dispose of the plastic.

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