If the rain won’t go away, you still have options when haying

Making haylage is a good option, but there are several things to keep in mind, says crop specialist

Western Canadian farmers are having to dodge severe thunderstorms and flooding to get into their fields this summer. Getting hay in, like in this field north of Turner Valley, is proving difficult, as pastures are either too wet, or crops have been damaged by heavy rain and hail.
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What do you do when the weather conspires against you and hay refuses to dry?

“You start looking for alternatives,” said provincial crop specialist Harry Brook. “A number of alternatives is available to consider when hay will not dry down to the 16 per cent moisture level that’s considered suitable for long-term storage.”

One form of storage that has gained popularity in the last couple of years is round baled silage, also known as haylage, which either comes in individually wrapped bales or in tubes.

“When making haylage it’s imperative that bales are wrapped to maximum density to minimize air pockets in the bale,” he said. “Moisture content for baled silage should be from 40 to 55 per cent for safe storage and adequate fermentation. Too much moisture and the bales become frozen solid in the winter. Too little moisture can result in excessive spoilage and limited fermentation activity.

“Don’t make the bales full size (they must be two-thirds to three-quarters of the size of a hay bale) as they can get too heavy for some loaders to lift.”

One of the advantages of baled silage is the reduced leaf loss in the hay and maintaining higher feed quality.

“The biggest plus, of course, is that you are not at the mercy of the weather,” said Brook. “It allows you to harvest hay when it is ready, rather than waiting for a dry spell that may be too late in coming to get it baled. Quality hay is more about the physiological age of the hay when cut than the fact rain may or may not have fallen on it once it has been cut.”

To get the best-quality haylage, the crop should be cut when young (early-bloom stage for grasses and legumes), and left to wilt to the correct moisture over one or two days. It should be wrapped within five to 10 hours after baling, as spoilage greatly increases if the time lag is longer.

“Use good-quality plastic that creates a complete seal and prevents air from getting into the bale,” said Brook. “The whole secret to making good silage is to minimize the number of air pockets in the bale and preventing any air from getting into it once wrapped.”

The ensiling process is basically pickling the forage. Once wrapped, oxygen-consuming bacteria use up the available oxygen in the bales. Too much oxygen will result in excessive heating. After the oxygen is used up, anaerobic bacteria use up the sugars in the forage and excrete lactic acid. Increased lactic acid lowers the pH, thus pickling or fermenting the forage, he said.

“Once ensiled, it’s important to prevent any air from getting back into the bale, as spoilage will occur. Any breaching of the plastic with tears or holes must be repaired immediately. When opened, baled silage stays good for only about a week. Tubed bales last about the same length of time.”

If hay is not dry enough for dry, baled hay, but too dry to make silage, propionic acid can be used.

“Adding it to damp hay will prevent mould growth, which then causes heating and feed quality losses. It’s a way to give the bale time to naturally dry down to a safe storage level. The propionic acid solution is sprayed onto the swath as it enters the baler. The amount needed depends on the moisture level of the hay. The higher the moisture of the bale, the more acid will be needed.”

Have a moisture probe on hand when baling, and since propionic acid is highly acidic and very corrosive, it’s best to use a buffered solution.

“Some products claim they will treat hay up to 35 per cent moisture, but economically the propionic acid should be used on hay at 25 per cent moisture or lower,” said Brook. “Treated hay is safe to feed to livestock.”

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