With temperatures all over the board and precipitation patterns not far behind, first cutting can be a tricky beast. Rapid forage accumulation, followed by stunted growth, followed by another spike in accumulation makes it necessary to keep a close eye on the stage of forage production and the weather forecast.
Cooler temperatures should result in lower-lignin forages, but spring rains can make it difficult to get in the field and bale dry hay in a timely manner, causing first cutting to be much later into the spring (or even summer!) than ideal - causing lignification and over-growth of the forage, reducing overall quality. Forage quality declines rapidly as plants set seed; however, the first cutting often offers the best opportunity for the greatest yield of any cutting of the season. The balancing act of ensuring optimum yields with premium quality, along with watching the weather, creates a game of decision-making that could give anyone a headache. According to Hay & Forage Grower, alfalfa accumulates an estimated 100 to 150 pounds of dry matter per acre every day during the late-vegetative to late-bud stages, meaning that in just a week's time, an additional 1/3 to 1/2 ton per acre can be accumulated. However, during that time of maturity, forage quality begins to plummet, creating the necessity to master the art of balancing yield and quality for the best first cutting possible.
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. 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 6 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 your operation, good, nutritious forage can be attained the first through your final cutting of the year.