Jeremy Sweeten, Sweeten Farms LLC
Balage, bale silage, or giant marshmallows have become an alternative harvest practice on many Indiana forage farms. It has become a great tool in the hay making arsenal to help prevent hay from becoming rain damaged. Dr. Johnson, Purdue University Forage Extension Specialist, and Jason Tower, Southern Indiana-Purdue Agricultural Center Superintendent, have given several presentations on balage and the benefits of it. In this article I would like to expand on their ideas and discuss what we have learned on our farm.
On our farm, located near Peru, Indiana, we use a Claas 255 baler to make bale silage. It is a 4x4, fix-chambered round baler with an individual bale wrapping unit built onto the rear of the baler. One bale is being wrapped while the next bale is being formed in the baler. The wrapped bale is then discharged with a quarter turn chute and stood on end to prevent stubble holes in the plastic. Since 2009, we have baled 4000 bales and over seventy five percent were silage bales. We use balage to sell or to feed to replacement dairy heifers.
Balage is a great way to harvest excess pastures for rotational graziers. Many spring pastures are abundant with hard-to-dry clovers, especially red clover and white clover. The clovers are very difficult to dry to safe dry baling moisture with out becoming rain damaged. If you do get the clovers dry, there can potentially be a large amount of leaf loss due to tedding and raking. The balage allows a producer to mow the forage one day and bale the next with less dry matter losses as compared to dry hay production. As a general rule, each time hay is handled there is a 2 to 5% dry matter loss. If raking and tedding could be eliminated, then 4 to 10% of the dry matter (mostly leaves) could be retained.
Another component of our balage operation is to get our first cutting hay started when it is ready and not over mature. The mid-May time period can be very frustrating because of frequent rainfall, whether you are planting corn or trying to get hay made. If there is a weather forecast of three to four days without rainfall, it is best to make the most of the sun’s energy. On the first sunny day we will start off mowing a field of hay that we want to dry bale. We try to maximize the amount of solar energy it can get. Once that field is mowed, then we mow a field of forage for balage. On day two, the “dry” hay field gets raked or tedded in the morning and the balage field gets baled in the afternoon. On the third day, we move the balage from the field early in the morning and then rake hay when it is ready. Finally we get our dry hay baled on day three or four. By using balage, we are able to remove a higher quality crop, make much more efficient use of our time, and retain more soil moisture for the next harvest.
Another consideration to speed up the drying process is to lay the windrows out as wide as possible. The larger surface area increases the drying rate of the forage. Just before the hay reaches the optimal baling moisture, rake it into windrows. Make sure to keep as much soil out of the hay as you can to help prevent mold. On days when solar radiation is high, hay can be mowed in the morning and wet wrapped in the afternoon.
On our farm we try to make the windrows four feet wide to match the width of the baler pickup. This eliminates weaving to keep the bale chamber full and even. By keeping the bale chamber full, the bales compress better. Tighter bales ensile better and reduce the risk of mold.
Once our excess pasture has been put into balage, we store it along the field edge on a heavy use pad (behind the fence of course). That stored feed is fed on frozen pastures to heifers either by unrolling the bales and strip grazing, or in a portable feed wagon that is moved daily. This improves manure distribution, reduces travel distance to haul hay during the summer and winter, and reduces the amount of inside hay storage space needed.
We also find that summer-annual grasses are very hard to dry down to hay in most years. It is easier to put them up as balage. Generally, we will double crop sudangrass or sorghum-sudangrass after wheat has been combined and take two harvests before a killing frost. With the heavy yield of these types of crops, the forage sometimes needs to wilt for longer periods of time. It has taken up to 52 hours before we could bale a heavy cutting of sudangrass. In 2009, I even put up a crop of triticale and peas in December as balage. There were no other harvest options available at that time of the year.
Costs of production also influence profit on a farm dramatically. With an individual bale wrapper our plastic costs have averaged about $3.00 per bale with three layers of plastic. An inline wrapper would be more efficient because they generally used about two thirds of the plastic that an individual wrapper uses. We do not use netting, which is more costly than twine, on wet-wrapped bales because a wet bale holds together better than a dry bale when it comes out of the baler. The individual wrapper allows us to sell and haul bales without opening them up. If we were producing for on farm use only, we would consider an inline wrapper.
In summary, with a little bit of practice balage can be a great tool to reduce the amount of rained on hay, speed up harvest to capture higher forage quality and improve your farm’s profitability with better quality feed.