Published on Mon, 06/08/2015 - 1:33pm

Tips for adding small-scale silage production
to hay-based TMR feeding systems 

I am often asked by smaller cow-calf producers and feeders “what is the best way to add silage to our feeding program?” These individuals recognize the value of being able to harvest forages at the optimal stage of maturity and not have forage quality adversely affected by inclement weather. They are also aware that moisture from the silage will improve the consistency of their TMR rations and help reduce sorting. However, they are also rightly concerned about the investment and operating costs of putting up conventional chopped silage in bunker silos. The following illustrates two simple alternatives for smaller operators to consider using to add silage to their forage production and feeding systems.

Silage basics: Producers putting up silage for the first time often fail because they consider it a practice for salvaging a failed, weathered hay or other crop. These attempts fail because the crop contains inadequate levels of soluble sugars to be converted (fermented) by bacteria into the organic acids that are required to preserve (i.e. “pickle”) the crop.

Successful silage production must be planned in advance and occur at the optimum stage when soluble sugars are highest and the moisture content is optimal for anaerobic fermentation. It is also essential the forage is sealed, air-tight, in plastic as soon as possible after harvest to maximize the organic acid production and prevent loss of soluble sugars and organic acids to oxygen using spoilage organisms such as yeast and fungi. Inoculants are available that can help the ensiling process, but these are best be added under optimal conditions to give a return on investment; they are much less effective on, and cannot “save,” poor quality or weathered forages.

Baleage: The easiest way to add silage to a TMR feeding program is to produce round-bale silage, or “baleage,” as it is often called. Quality baleage is generally put up after the forage has dried down to 45-55 percent moisture, often the same day it is cut. Alfalfa is generally put up on the drier end of the scale to further concentrate its soluble sugars and promote a higher level of production during fermentation. The greater acid production is required to overcome its higher, inherent buffering capacity and reach an acceptable pH level for stable storage.

Bale weight: The high moisture content of silage bales means they will weigh almost double the weight of similarly sized bales of hay. It is therefore important to ensure that both one’s baler and front-end loader(s) have the capacity to handle the resulting bale weight. If not, it is important that the baler is capable of making smaller bales.

It is not recommended that one decrease bale density to maintain a given bale size. Most importantly, this will make it easier for air to infiltrate the bale during fermentation and storage and cause spoilage. In addition, the bales will be soft, hard to handle and less able to maintain their seal against air entry; also, the amount of plastic used for wrapping will be unnecessarily increased (greater circumference per unit weight).

Balers: It appears this may be why most high density, silage balers now mainly come in four foot widths. The addition of cutting knives and increased compression has resulted in four-by-four silage bale weights approaching 2,000 lbs., or more, perhaps a reasonable expected upper safe operating capacity for most balers and front-end loaders. The higher density achievable with these types of balers will conceivably improve silage fermentation and decrease spoilage; the “pre-cutting” can also decrease the time required for processing during preparation of TMR rations for feeding.

Bale wrappers: Bales must be completely sealed, and maintained, air tight (!) against oxygen entry to prevent mold growth and spoilage during storage. This is normally done by wrapping them in plastic, either individually or in a long “tube.” The most practical way to store round-bale silage appears to be by wrapping a continuous length of bales at the side of the field, within 24 hours of baling, with a minimum thickness of 6 mil. of stretch plastic manufactured for that purpose. Then, during feeding in cooler weather, multiple bales can be periodically cut away and moved to the feeding area for use, with minimal spoilage. Other methods have been used for producing and storing round-bale silage, including individual bags or plastic covered stacks, but these are susceptible to high levels of air entry and spoilage, and are thus not generally recommended.

Bagged silage: Another cost-effective way to put up silage on a smaller scale is to make bagged silage. This is a good option for producing corn or other crop silage that are not suitable for making baleage. As with baleage, it is essential to use good quality, UV resistant plastic that has been manufactured for the purpose by a reputable company. It is also very important to ensure the forage is packed well and uniformly, but not so tight that it over-stretches and damages the plastic and its resistance to oxygen permeability. It is also useful to determine the best place to store the bag, usually near the feed mixing area, and prepare a suitable surface for it to sit on. A smooth, hard, well drained surface will make filling go smoother, reduce damage to the bag from ground irregularity, rocks and vermin, and make feed-out easier and cleaner.

Making your own versus contracting: The biggest hurdles to making silage for the first time may be fear and risk of the unknown and untried, combined with additional capital cost, either for a bale wrapper (baleage) or chopper, wagons and bagger for making bag silage. To deal with this, I have a couple suggestions.

Like most worthwhile pursuits, making quality silage benefits from experience and requires attention to detail. Therefore, I believe it is best to start slowly and learn the craft, and where possible, benefit from the experience and investment of others. So, If possible, perhaps a neighbor who has experience making baleage would be willing to bale and wrap a small proportion of your crop for you to see how silage fits in your program; then watch and learn as it is done. Likewise, another neighbor may be willing to let you use a chopper and wagon to make a bag of silage with a contracted bagger. In most cases it will be best to contract a bagger for making bag silage as the machines can be quite expensive and require considerable experience to use correctly. Until one acquires sufficient experience making silage, the operator’s advice alone may be worth the cost. Depending where you live, the size of your operation, and the services available, it may even be cost-effective to contract out the entire ensiling process — Because Nutrition Matters.™