The cool, wet spring that has overtaken most of Pennsylvania has posed challenges for making good quality, first cutting dry hay. Forages become mature quickly and quality rapidly declines after seed set. Wrapping wet bales for baleage could help to ensure your hay fields are harvested at the correct stage of maturity, providing adequate quality for livestock.
First and foremost, good quality baleage must be achieved by baling at the proper moisture content. Rather than aiming for 16-20% moisture, which is the common target for dry hay, forage can be baled for baleage at 45-65% moisture. The proper moisture content allows for optimal fermentation after the bale is covered and sealed and oxygen can no longer penetrate the bale.
When individually wrapping bales, plastic should be about one mil (25 microns) thick low-density polyethylene and each bale should be wrapped a minimum of 5 times, but 8 is more ideal, with at least a 50% overlap. As the bale is wrapped, the plastic is stretched thinner than the original material, causing the need for multiple layers to ensure elimination of oxygen, sunlight, and excess moisture. If the bales being wrapped have sharp stems, more layers of plastic can be useful in preventing holes from being poked through the wrap, allowing air to infiltrate the bale. More mature, lower quality forage or drier hay should also have more layers.
Wrapping within 4 hours of baling helps to ensure proper fermentation and reduce the exposure of the bale to air. Wrapping close the area where the bales will be stored helps to lessen the probability of plastic getting torn during transportation. Storing the wrapped bales in a well-drained area where water will not accumulate on the ground is essential.
Paying attention to smaller details can help to increase the quality of your wrapped forage. Mowing in the afternoon is ideal since the sugars are highest in the plant at that time, but if an afternoon mowing time is not possible, at least waiting until the dew is burned off is essential. The addition of bacterial inoculants can help to ensure proper and consistent fermentation throughout the entire bale.
Spring weather can be a challenge to harvest high quality forages, but if wrapping bales for baleage is an option on our operation, good, nutritious forage can be attained the first through your final cutting of the year.