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Tips and tricks for successful baled silage

Don’t delay cutting, and make sure bales are a consistent size

Baled silage has several advantages over dry hay, including reduced risk and a higher-quality product when it’s made right. That was the message from Manitoba Agriculture’s livestock specialist Ray Bittner at the online Ag in Motion show in July.

While a perfect season can mean a good yield of dry hay with no mould and no heating, “We don’t generally have ideal years when it comes to making hay,” Bittner said. The reality is there are always issues, from not getting to the first cut soon enough to not getting a long-enough spell of good weather to get the hay cut, dried and baled. “Making dry hay is a challenge,” Bittner said.

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He acknowledged that making baled silage costs more than making dry hay, but said the gains in quality and the reduced risks of spoilage make it worthwhile. He recommends Manitoba’s silage cost of production calculator (found online by searching that phrase) to help determine the cost of silage for your situation. “Any province can get into this site, it’s free and it’s a good calculator.”

Cut when ready

The first step to getting good silage is the right cutting date.

“It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about alfalfa, greenfeed, grass or even corn,” Bittner said. “Immature plants equal good ensile; overly mature plants equal poor ensile. It works across the board that way.”

He recommends that producers who want to make round bale silage aim to cut 50 acres a day starting on June 25, then wrap the bales until their best fields are safely stored.

“On July 20, cut half your greenfeed early and wrap enough for calf feed and lactation feed with the high energy and high protein, and decide the rest based on the forecast,” Bittner said. “If you’ve got a great dry stretch coming, maybe bale it dry. Because you started early, you may be able to get a second cut before combining season.”

Yield versus quality

Leaf yield is the high-quality, high-protein and highly digestible part of forage. The stem is less digestible. Bittner said if producers wait for the highest yield, they will get lots of stem and not a lot of extra leaves. As a result, he encourages cutting early.

“Get your optimum first cut earlier, with more leaves and less stem. What that will do is put a good-quality first cut into your pile or into your bale and it will also not use up a bunch of moisture growing a bunch of stems. You’ll be better off cutting first cut and second cut with lots of leaves than growing a huge first cut with a lot of stems and a second cut that barely yields enough to make it worthwhile.”

Considering the water-soluble carbohydrates, or plant sugars, is also important since this affects ensiling.

“Alfalfa at vegetative state has nine per cent water-soluble carbohydrates; once it hits early bloom it’s seven per cent,” Bittner said. “If you’re ensiling vegetative alfalfa, it works better than bloom alfalfa.”

At 13 per cent, legume grass has more water-soluble carbohydrates than pure alfalfa. Early corn silage has 31 per cent water-soluble carbo- hydrates, making it easy to get good- quality silage if it’s chopped and baled early.

“When you get to October and November, cutting corn silage at eight per cent, it gets much more difficult to make quality silage that’s very stable,” Bittner said. “If a field has a lot of quackgrass, it always seems like bales with quackgrass in them have a bit of mould or rot in them. That’s because there’s a lot of water-soluble carbohydrates in quackgrass.

“If in the future you’re baling quackgrass, bale it as round bale silage and you’ll have much better success storing it.”

Bittner said to be aware of the calcium in forage because it’s a basic, which counteracts acids desirable for fermentation.

“Calcium is a wonderful nutrient — it’s great for cows, it makes rations good, it balances out a lot of the micronutrients, but it’s bad for ensiling.”

Bales — temperature and shape

Silage needs desirable bacteria, and warmth and moisture for them to grow.

“In summertime, with greenfeed, when it’s plus 30 Celsius, it’s very easy to get the bacteria to go,” Bittner said, adding the bottom limit for moisture content is 30 per cent to get real silage. “But, around 50 per cent moisture on a round bale is ideal for the ensiling process.”

The ideal is a square-shoulder bale with all the air compressed out. “It is made when you have a windrow that’s square like a briefcase,” Bittner said. “That’s what will work best when going through a wrap. When you have square, solid, good bales, you’ll make a nice row that seals together well and have very little mould.”

Saddleback windrows — bowed in the middle — create bales that are larger at the outside edge and have air space in the middle. This often causes some mould in the centre of each bale. Soft-shoulder bales that are humped in the middle have all the product in the middle and very little at each end. Bittner said this will typically result in quite a bit of mould between the bales or at the ends of each bale because there is too much air at the edge.

Bales that are too tall happen as they come down the ramp on the inline stretcher and tip over a bit.

“The height becomes too tall for it to all fit together right and it’s hard to do with the way bale wrappers are made,” Bittner said. “Newer bale wrappers generally have longer slopes that work a little bit better but this is always going to be a problem when you get really huge bales.

“You’re going to have bales that don’t quite fit together right, have a little bit extra stretch in the plastic at the bale join, and you’ll have air spaces in between. You’ll have some extra mould in this situation.”

Another potential issue is if bales are roughed up or loaded crooked. If roughed-up bales touch against the silage plastic, it may rip, allowing air in to cause spots of mould.

Bittner said one tip is to make sure bales are the right size to fit through your hoop so you don’t end up with a pile of bales you can’t wrap.

Plastic

Plastic for inline wrappers is really thin and should be stretched 55 to 60 per cent to avoid having loose plastic around your bales. How many wraps you actually do will depend on what you’re baling. Silage with big stems and rough bales will require more wrap than third-cut alfalfa in September with net wrap.

Another situation to watch out for is stems spearing your plastic and making holes if you put your silage on top of the hard short stems left behind after cutting some crops.

“If you’re an inexperienced wrapper operator and this is your first time through, plan on putting on lots and then fine-tuning it over time,” Bittner said.

ROUND BALE SILAGE DON’TS

Ray Bittner suggests this list of don’ts when making round bale silage.

Don’t:

  • Carry two bales on the front of the tractor.
  • Overload your semi, mover or baler.
  • Oversize your bale.
  • Go too wet.
  • Go too dry.
  • Wait too long to wrap.

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