Forage wrapping a growing practice

Ray Mueller
Now Media Group


Baleage and dry hay. Chopped haylage and baleage. Round bales and rectangular bales. Tube wrapping and individual wrapping.

What are the upsides and downsides of those forage harvesting and feeding practices? Answers were given by University of Wisconsin Extension Service biological systems engineer and forage equipment and machinery specialist Kevin Shinners at the 2016 annual meeting of the Sheboygan County Forage Council.

Although no official statistics are compiled on how much forage is being harvested as baleage, one good clue is the continuing rise in the sales of plastic wrapping — now topping 1 billion pounds per year in the United States, Shinners said. This includes plastic film wrap for bales along with the plastic for silage bags and bunker covers.

Fundamental practices

Given the risks with drying hay, the making of forages as baleage has become more popular in areas with a high humidity climate, Shinners said. The farmers doing so need to realize the importance of excluding the oxygen and sealing the bales in order to prevent spoilage.

Shinners prescribes a minimum of four plastic film layers for wrapping individual bales and up to five to eight when the forage isn't ideal in terms of moisture, maturity or hardness of the stems. He said the polyethylene should be at least 1 mil thick.

For baleage, the moisture should be at 45 to 55 percent so there will be sufficient soluble carbohydrates and a good opportunity, in combination with the sugars, for excellent fermentation, Shinners explained. He also endorses the application of an inoculant to enhance fermentation and reduce spoilage.

Basic comparisons

In reviewing the ups and downs of dry hay and baleage, Shinners pointed out that baleage can usually be harvested about two days earlier, greatly reducing the risk of being rained on. Feed quality is improved by saving more leaves and the quality tends to be more uniform, he remarked.

Dry hay still holds advantages such as making sales to horse owners, handling much lower weights, not requiring any plastic, and a reduced need for equipment, Shinners said. Putting dry hay in bales without wrapping them carries the risk of having a weathered outer rind and spoilage at the bottom unless protected storage is provided.

Compared to chopped silage or haylage, baleage has less feedout losses, accommodates a wider moisture range and can easily be used as a targeted feed, Shinners pointed out. But chopped forage can be harvested faster, stores with more density, has better fermentation, mixes more easily in rations and reduces sorting by cattle.

Shinners also mentioned attaching a pre-cutter to a baler for a cost of $10,000 to $15,000. Although pre-cutting the forage reduces the time needed for grinding in a feed mixer and how much sorting cows are likely to do, it doesn't improve fermentation and costs about 10 percent more in fuel to operate a baler, he pointed out.

Windrow widths

To dry forage somewhat faster, create wide windrows rather than narrow swaths, Shinners said. "And don't cut more than you are able to bale at the right time."

Contrary to some other opinions, he strongly advocates conditioning all of the forage as it is cut.

Cut the forage high enough so dirt and other debris close to the soil surface will not be mixed in it. For raking, he greatly prefers a rotary rather than a wheel type rake because the latter can also bring debris into the forage.

Another essential is to make bales with a uniform shape and size, Shinners remarked. Giving this proper attention while baling will help greatly in keeping air out when the bales are put into storage in a tubing bag or in stacks. "The key is to be anaerobic, keeping the air out."

Wrapping provisions

Round bales can be made in diameters of up to 6 feet provided that this size is fitted to the wrapper and doesn't result in too heavy a weight, Shinners said. Another reason for making large bales is to reduce the amount of wrapping film.

Tube wrapping fails to cover the bale ends but it can wrap a bale in 30 to 60 seconds at a cost of $2.50 to $3.50 per bale ($4.40 to $6.60 when done by a custom operator), Shinners noted. However, its cost of $25,000 to $35,000 is about $10,000 more than that for an individual wrapper, which takes about two minutes to wrap a bale at a cost of $3.50 to $4.50 or $6.60 to $9.90 when done by a custom operator.

Per ton of feed, the weight of the recommended wrap with a tube wrapper is 3.3 to 4.5 pounds, he said. Multiply that by 1.5 for individual wrapping. Not being able to see the material (the forage) through the wrapping is a sign that it's sufficient, Shinners pointed out.

If there's a desire to use baling twine, select only a product that's not treated with oil, Shinners advised. In Europe, a cost-saving practice is to apply a net wrapping followed by the plastic film cover.

Moisture stipulations

Although baleage allows for major differences in moisture, there are still limits, Shinners emphasized. Don't consider baling any forage with at least 65 percent moisture, be aware that even 55 percent moisture can result in condensation on the surface next to the wrap and strive for the ideal of 45 to 55 percent moisture.

Increase the number of wrap layers at 35 to 45 percent because of the need to have an anaerobic condition for good fermentation, Shinners explained. At 25 to 30 percent moisture, be prepared to feed what is sometimes referred to as "sweet silage" quite soon. Forage at less than 25 percent moisture is to be handled as dry hay, he noted.

When the moisture or forage quality is outside of a good or ideal range, Shinners suggested applying an inoculant. It's either that for about 50 cents per ton or one more wrapping layer, he said.

Storage practices

When storing round bales, set them on an end like a tin can in order to reduce the amount of squish, Shinners advised. With square or rectangular bales, avoid stair stepping when stacking them.

For tube wrapping, go in a straight line — no curves or turns — and consider putting a sacrificial bale such as straw at each end, Shinners suggested. Don't store the bales in a woods, on a wet site or where animals would easily be attracted to them and fix any holes in them with cuttings of similar plastic.

With proper wrapping and storage, feeders of baleage should expect to have very little dry matter loss — well below the rates for other kinds of storage, Shinners said. He cited a study at the Arlington research farm that showed dry matter losses of only 2 to 4.5 percent.

Plastic disposal

As to what to do with discarded plastic film, there's no good answer. Shinners noted that burning it is illegal in Wisconsin, but about 30 percent of it is being burned nonetheless.

Another 60 percent of that plastic is going to landfills, and only 10 percent is being recycled, Shinners reported. Only three counties in Wisconsin sponsor a recycling program for the plastics used on farms, in part because the sale prices are low.