Haylage an option for alfalfa and other feeds
May 29, 2015
Make hay while the sun shines.
But what if the sun doesn't shine?
Making haylage might be the answer.
"That's the biggest challenge with hay making almost anywhere you go – the problem of weather damage," Bruce Anderson said. "Haylage helps reduce a lot of that occurrence because of its ability to be harvested more rapidly, and thus exposure time being far less."
Anderson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension forage specialist, said depending on the region and operation, choosing to chop and ferment alfalfa hay could cut the harvest process down by several days.
"Instead of having to wait for a five day window with no rain, you can get by with a two day window," Glen Jantzen, who owns and operates Jantzen Harvesting LLC near Plymoth, Nebraska.
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"So it's a quality issue, a timing issue, and you can get done a little quicker if you're racing rain," Jantzen said. "You can harvest it when the crop is at a better maturity level, at a higher quality, too."
That was one of the bonuses of switching to haylage for Lee Hofland, who ranches in south western North Dakota. He had the land and the feeding equipment, but needed more time and a more consistent feed supply, especially for their heifer backgrounding and feeder lamb facilities. He and his father run a cow-calf and lamb operation near Reeder.
"Its timing and the quality of the feed," Hofland said. "We can put up several hundred acres in a really short amount of time, and then it's in a bag, it's in the yard, and it's ready to feed."
In the right weather conditions, they can swath and chop the haylage in the same day, running three hired swathers to keep up with a chopper that runs through about 150 acres of haylage per day.
"It's pretty labor intensive, but I don't think it's any more labor," he said, comparing to the four or five days it might take to swath, windrow, wait and bale at the right time, temperature and moisture content. The Hoflands hire a custom harvester to do the job, a worthwhile upfront expense for them to have their own feed secured for the winter. That relieves them of depending on the delivery of wet distillers grains for a protein source, he said.
"The big thing for us is, if we get snowed in, we just have to dig the haylage out of the snow. We don't have to wait for the truck to deliver from the ethanol plant. When the plant breaks down, we can still feed cattle, because the haylage is in my yard."
Hofland said the protein content of their haylage was substantially higher than their dry hay. Anderson agreed that could certainly be expected, thanks to the higher moisture level at harvest.
"The leaves are going to be better preserved that way; there's usually going to be less leaf shattering and leaf loss from the hay," Anderson said. "It's not unheard of to lose 10 percent of the yield and two to three points of protein concentration as a result of baling dry, shattering hay."
Ideal moisture content for chopping haylage is around 60-65 percent, similar to corn silage.
However, Anderson said, it's important to keep in mind these two fermented feeds are different products. Someone who makes corn silage may already have the necessary equipment to chop, store and feed a fermented product, but should also note the two unique challenges of good fermentation when dealing with alfalfa.
Alfalfa does not contain a large amount of readily available carbohydrates, particularly compared to corn silage, which is essential to the fermenting process. He suggested adding a carbohydrate source – typically molasses, but it could also be cracked or ground grain – to provide a starch to feed the microbes responsible for fermentation. Alfalfa also has a high buffering capacity, which resists the reduction in pH needed to preserve the feed as a stable, high quality feed source, Anderson said. The addition of a silage inoculant specific to alfalfa haylage will alleviate those concerns.
Similar to corn silage, haylage must be densely and tightly packed for proper fermentation and storage. It can be bagged or packed into a pit, bunker or pile, or baled and tightly wrapped.
"If it's well preserved, well fermented, it can remain in storage for a very extended period of time," Anderson said. "It doesn't lose feed value over time to any great extent."
The Hoflands prefer to bag their haylage, and Jantzen said that is one of the more commonly requested storage methods he gets from customers.
"Bagging probably has the least amount of shrink, but bagging is also specialized and it's more expensive to buy the machines to do it," Jantzen said. But, bunkers and piles come with expenses, too – the proper space, the equipment to pack it properly, the lining and the covering. "Everything comes with an expense, it's just what you're prepared for on your operation."
The texture and moisture content make it easy to mix in feed rations, and it's highly palpable, Hofland said. But it also spoils quickly if not consumed.
"With haylage, it's a one meal type of deal," Anderson said, in contrast to a large round bale in a hay rack or spread on the ground where cows might clean it up in a couple days. "If the haylage isn't cleaned up, what remains is likely to go out of condition and spoil quickly, and it will not be consumed."
Jantzen also pointed out that the weight and moisture content means it's not exactly a mobile feed source. "Haylage pretty much needs to be used wherever you're chopping it, because it's expensive to transport," he said.
"Typically, we see haylage being a little more expensive to use," Anderson said, pointing out that it depends on the equipment and labor available and the operation's feed requirements. Hiring a custom harvester to do the job requires a cost analysis that is specific to each unique operation.
"The big thing is, for anybody, first, look at the initial expense. It is an expensive way to put up hay," Hofland said. "But if you get a tremendous amount of rain that takes a lot of hay off the fields, well, that's expensive too. For us, it's worth it when the chopper leaves the yard, we have our feed storage in the yard."
Jantzen added that haylage could be made from about any source – they hire to harvest and chop rye, triticale, barley or wheat, and know fellow custom harvesters who do Burmuda grass further south. If a producer has never worked with a custom harvester before, he pointed to the U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. (www.uschi.com), as a good resource for questions and a clearinghouse to hire potential custom harvest crews.