Hay making challenges in wet weather | TSLN.com

Hay making challenges in wet weather

by Ken Olson
Extension Beef Specialist, SDSU West River Ag Center
Ken Olson |
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It’s been a wet spring throughout most of the Tri-State Livestock News readership area. That has made it great for producing abundant forage, as long as you haven’t had to deal with flooding, which has been a problem for some. Unfortunately, the new challenge is how to put up high-quality hay under the continuing rainy conditions. A few thoughts follow:

If hay has been rained on, it will lose nutritional value. The best alternative is to turn it as needed to hasten drying it out, but do so while it is still damp enough to retain its leaves. If it keeps getting rained on, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain its value. Eventually, it becomes more important to get it off the field to allow the next cutting to be produced, or at least to keep from killing vegetation that is smothered under the windrows. In the worst case, it may become necessary to throw away the first cutting once it becomes moldy just to get it off the field.

If it becomes necessary to put it up a little damp because it is almost ready to bale but you can see the rain clouds building, one needs to be cautious about a couple of things. First, it will probably be heat damaged. When damp hay heats in the bale, soluble protein and carbohydrates chemically bond into a totally indigestible entity called heat-damage protein. It becomes really important to send a sample for a feed test that includes not only total crude protein but also heat-damage protein so it can be subtracted from the total to determine available protein. For example, if a hay sample contains 11 percent crude protein, but heat damage protein is 4 percent, then available protein should be considered to be 7 percent. In this case, total crude protein suggests this feed has adequate protein for a pregnant beef cow, but available protein is marginal at 7 percent and a protein supplement may be necessary.

The second concern is that if the damp hay heats a lot, spontaneous combustion becomes a possibility. Precautions should be taken in case it starts on fire such as stacking it away from buildings and other improvements, and stacking it in small stacks, or better yet, leaving it spread out to let it dissipate heat.

Another option to avoid rain damage would be to wrap high-moisture bales in plastic to make bale silage. To make bale silage, the cut hay only needs to wilt in the windrow to the 40 to 55 percent moisture level. This will take hours to a day as opposed to the several days needed to make hay. Keeping an eye on the weather and careful planning can make this level of drying much more possible before it gets rained on.

There are pros and cons to making bale silage. The major pro is that it allows conserving of forage under poor weather conditions without the large capital equipment investment in traditional silage-making equipment, including a forage chopper, silage wagons, silos, etc. Obviously, it does add some cost because it requires another piece of equipment, the plastic wrap, and another operation in the field, but it’s relatively inexpensive compared to traditional silage making. Not only does it allow conserving forage during rainy weather, but it can actually increase feed and nutrient retention because there will be less leaf loss due to shattering and so forth. Once wrapped in plastic, there will also be less storage loss compared to hay bales stacked in the open without being covered.

The major con is the additional expense and time already mentioned. This expense may be justified however, in terms of the quality of feed that is conserved for use in the coming winter. Another potential concern is that silage bales of a given size will be close to twice as heavy as the same feed in a hay bale because of the additional moisture content. Thus, one has to consider the load on the baler and consider reducing bale size. Reducing bale size also becomes important with some of the bale wrappers because they are limited in the size of bale they can handle. A final negative is dealing with all of the waste plastic when it is taken off the bales to feed them.

The correct moisture content of bale silage is important. If it is too wet, the fermentation that occurs in silage that preserves the forage can take the wrong pathway and provide poor results, or excess water can actually “wash” out of the silage and carry nutrients away with it. If silage is too dry, the fermentation process will not occur or will be limited and, again, the preservation of the forage will be inadequate. Some research however, indicates that the bales will still store well even if the forage was a little too dry for good fermentation simply because the plastic wrap protects the forage. This suggests that one should err on the side of too dry rather than too wet.

The plastic should be wrapped on the bales as soon after baling as possible (within a few hours). The key to silage making is creating an oxygen-free environment in the silo (inside the plastic wrap in this case). Additionally, any damage to the plastic should be repaired quickly. If the plastic wrap is damaged, air will get in and spoilage will be rapid. Thus, it is important to keep an eye on plastic-wrapped bales and repair tears and holes in the plastic as soon as they occur if the bales are to be stored for a very long period of time.

Once the bales are wrapped, they can be stacked similar to the way hay bales are traditionally stacked as long as care can be taken not to damage the plastic. Round bale silage adds an option that increases flexibility compared to traditional hay making, and may be the perfect option when rainy weather causes difficulty making hay.

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