Bale silage is one method to protect feed for winter

In a world of unicorns and rainbows, hay for livestock would be cut near the end of June, adequately dried in the sun, baled in excellent condition, hauled and stored at a convenient site.

In similar utopian fashion, crop for silage would be all chopped and stored by mid-September.

All of that could happen but in case it doesn’t, bale silage is one way to ensure some quality feed is available. It’s more expensive than simple baling of dry hay but it can pay off in some conditions.

Ray Bittner, livestock specialist with Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, shared his advice about round bale silage July 21 during an Ag in Motion Discovery Plus on-line session.

Round bale silage particularly shines if hay fields are small and uneven and the crop has multiple levels of maturity. It’s also a handy option in wet years and when labour is in short supply.

Farmers already have most of the needed equipment if they bale dry hay, said Bittner.

Silage is created when damp forage is subjected to an anaerobic environment so sugars are converted to acids. Once the acidic environment develops, it stops bacterial growth and inhibits mould and decomposition.

Four or more wraps of plastic are required to protect silage bales from air exposure and limit the risk of holes and other damage to the plastic, says a livestock specialist. | Jeanette Greaves photo

Best results are obtained when harvesting immature plants and ensiling at the optimum moisture level, which varies depending on the material.

To be properly wrapped for ensiling, bales should have square shoulders and be the right size for the bagging hoop. Proper size and shape of any bale depends to some extent on the condition of the windrow.

Bittner said saddle-backed windrows result in air trapped in the middle of the bale. That will promote mould growth. Windrows too wide for the baler will also result in sub-par bales for wrapping because the edges will be soft and airy.

As well, “you can have the perfect windrow but you can make your bales too tall,” he said.

That’s a problem on older bale wrappers because the bales don’t fit together well and there’s more stretch in the plastic, increasing the risk of damage and tearing.

If windrows are thin in forage crops, Bittner recommended merging them rather than raking or tedding.

“I would challenge you to say that the merger… is the way to go. It’s an expensive machine but it is the best.”

Raking can add dirt, allowing bacteria into the bale and affecting the ensiling process. Tedding is better than raking if the operator ensures the tines don’t touch the ground, which also incorporates dirt and bacteria and can result in mould within the bales.

As for the plastic used in round bale silage, Bittner said at least four wraps are required and sometimes more.

“You may not believe it, but four wraps of plastic, .002 (mil thickness), will actually allow oxygen to pass through the plastic and help rot the outside of your silage bales. Yes, that is true. Oxygen does travel through plastic despite the fact that it doesn’t look like it can. So, four wraps is really not enough. It won’t really fit very many situations.”

The optimum number of wraps depends on the type of crop, bale shape and size. Even relatively small tears and holes can allow mould and damage for a considerable amount of feed.

“Small bales with net wrap, you can get away with less plastic,” said Bittner.

He listed the positives and negatives of round bale silage.

Positives:

  • one person can do it
  • uses existing machinery
  • sharing of wrapper possible
  • helps manage time
  • preserves feed quality
  • reduces waste
  • can do in short weather window

Negatives:

  • high plastic investment
  • potential damage to tractor loader/front wheel assist
  • higher maintenance of baler and bale wagon
  • labour if done during peak season
  • labour to remove twine/net/plastic

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