From the cow’s mouth: silage palatability
Follow process to produce high-quality, palatable hay silage.

Producing silage from a hay crop has many advantages for the producer; it extends the harvest time frame and sustains forage yield and quality during harvest. Ensiling a hay crop also yields a highly palatable, nutritious product that can help improve overall animal performance as long as it’s managed correctly during and after the growing season.

Palatable feed does more than taste good to an animal. Palatability comprises texture, smell, succulence, sugar content, leaf retention and other physical and chemical characteristics that contribute to the makeup of a feed source. The more palatable a feed source, the more likely an animal will consume it, contributing to a higher rate of gain.

Hay silage or baleage is often harvested when the forage source has a higher moisture level – up to 55%. Ensiling forage helps contribute to the right balance of nutrition leading to strong rates of gain in fed cattle. It is highly palatable because of its concentration of digestible protein and high acidity, but low concentration of structural components like cellulose and lignin, which are much less readily digested.

The steps in ensiling forage

The hay-ensiling process starts at harvest, when plants are chopped at specific moisture levels and maturities to optimize subsequent fermentation and maximize digestibility and palatability of the resulting silage. For example, the best time to harvest alfalfa for silage is during bud to early-bloom stage, while longer-stem grasses are best harvested at boot stage for optimal silage production. Delaying harvest for silage beyond these points – especially when a crop is drier – will open the door to increased lignin and fiber levels in plant tissue that can cause digestibility to decline.

Aerobic fermentation begins immediately after hay is harvested. This process of respiration introduces oxygen into plant tissues, stimulating enzymes to begin breaking down plant proteins and allowing aerobic bacteria to feed upon plant carbohydrates, yielding moisture, heat and carbon dioxide. Though it’s a necessary part of ensiling, aerobic fermentation must be limited in time in order to prevent bacteria from consuming too much of a crop’s protein supply or promoting the growth of other molecules like mold.

It’s ideal to begin anaerobic fermentation after just hours of aerobic fermentation. The process that typically involves baling, wrapping or otherwise packing the forage to minimize available oxygen facilitates what many refer to as the “pickling” of the silage crop. As anaerobic bacteria begin growing in the forage in the absence of ample oxygen, they convert plant material to acetic acid. The resulting “pickling” process drops the hay’s pH to ideally around 5.0. The  increasingly acidic environment eventually halts the continued breakdown of protein, preserving it for cattle feeding on the silage later.

"A tight bale that is at the right moisture is the ideal type of material to then make baleage out of."
“When making baleage, it becomes very important to get the right moisture content in the bale so that we get the optimal amount of fermentation to preserve the nutrient quality in that hay and also make sure we get the bale packed very tightly to force air out,” University of Nebraska Extension Forage Specialist Bruce Anderson said. “A tight bale that is at the right moisture is the ideal type of material to then make baleage out of.”

After ensiled hay has been baled and wrapped — effectively limiting bacteria’s exposure to oxygen — for two to three weeks, its pH eventually drops to around because of the anaerobic fermentation it’s undergone earlier in the process. The resulting high acidity of that environment ultimately prevents further yeast and mold growth, yielding a baleage crop that has balanced pH, high protein content and is highly palatable for cattle.

“We know the animal needs certain amounts of protein and that protein has to be available to the animal, so we don’t spend extra money on supplemental protein. The same goes for energy; a forage source’s total digestible nutrition (TDN) is especially important in providing the energy cattle are going to need to survive and thrive,” Anderson said. “Hay cut and baled at the right time then packaged appropriately and in good condition can quite easily provide the nutrient needs cattle will require. When making baleage, it becomes very important to get the right moisture content in the bale so that we achieve the optimal amount of fermentation to preserve the nutrient quality in that hay.”

Equipment to produce baleage

Given the importance of limiting oxygen for a successful baleage crop, the right combination of equipment is essential. It starts with a baler like the Vermeer 604 Pro G3 that can handle the demands of heavy, high-moisture forage crop with a 17-knife chopping system that helps pre-cut the forage. The 604 Pro G3 baler is designed with a solid frame, heavy-duty components like large bearings, chains and rollers and poly pickup bands to fit the needs of North American silage producers. An added bonus –  the Atlas ProTM control system comes standard with the baler and monitors hay making metrics in real-time such as bale density for up to 50 fields.

Even more important in the ensiling process is the bale-wrapping technology, such as Vermeer® Net and a Vermeer bale wrapper, to correctly package tight bales. Vermeer Net is made with heavy-duty HDPE for maximized strength to help keep bales wrapped tighter than twine. SBW-series single bale wrappers are available from Vermeer to help producers wrap high-moisture bales into high-nutrition packages. Vermeer also offers the BW5500 inline bale wrapper for large-volume operators.

If you currently produce dry hay and are considering making high-moisture baleage, the right equipment is just part of the equation. Timing is also important; while baleage opens up the harvest time frame for producers, it’s a good idea to plot on a calendar your estimated times for baling and harvest in order to hit the time windows required to make bales at the right moisture levels. This can also help in planning how you will meet year-round feed needs.

Still have baleage questions? Start here to find the answers you need.


Information noted above was gathered from a third party who was advised his/her experience might be featured in marketing materials. This article contains third-party observations, advice or experiences that do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vermeer Corporation, its affiliates or its dealers. Individual results may vary based on care and operation of machine and crop and field conditions, which may adversely affect performance.

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