Understanding Baleage Terms and Observations

Baleage is a beneficial option for making high quality stored forage in Kentucky. Baleage is the ensiling of wilted forage in round bales wrapped in UV-resistant, stretch wrap plastic. The technology is well proven but not without its challenges. The primary challenge is  achieving a moisture content (MC) in the target range of 40 to 60%. Baleage is not ideal for ensiling for many reasons, but especially because the fermentable carbohydrates are on the inside of cells and must diffuse out to come in contact with the fermenting bacteria on the surface of the plant. For this reason, fermentation reports will often flag baleage samples as high risk because they will have low lactic acid values and pH above 5.0 compared to chopped haylages at similar moisture levels.

An on-farm research study in Kentucky over the past three years collected data on the fermentation characteristics of over 100 lots of baleage with MC ranging from 20 to 80%. As a result of studying these samples and the associated production practices, what follows is a guide to interpreting baleage fermentation reports.

Interpreting the terms on a fermentation report

· Moisture/Dry Matter – The moisture content of the forage as tested. The MC of baleage should fall between 40 and 60 percent to be conducive to fermentation and to inhibit the growth of Clostridial bacterial.

· Crude Protein – The estimate of the protein value of baleage, calculated by measuring nitrogen (N) content and multiplying by 6.25.

· Lactic Acid – The product of anaerobic fermentation of soluble sugars and carbohydrates by lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus plantarum. Lactic acid values of 3% or greater are desired in baleage (DM basis).

· Acetic Acid – Concentrations of acetic acid should be between 1 and 4% (DM basis) and ideally no more than half of the lactic acid present.

· Propionic Acid – Propionic acid levels should be less than 0.5 to 1% (DM basis). High levels indicate that insufficient sugar was available for fermentation.

· Butyric Acid – Butyric acid should be no more than 0.5% (DM basis) and ideally less. Cattle intake has been shown to be depressed by as little as 0.3% butyric acid.

· pH – Ideally baleage should have a pH of 5.0 or below to inhibit secondary fermentation by Clostridial bacteria.

· Ash – is the fraction of the forage that is inorganic minerals. Standing forage is about 8 to 10 % ash (DM basis). Elevated ash content (>11%) indicates that the baleage has been contaminated with dirt.

Observations are important

To assess the quality of baleage fermentation, your observations can tell you a lot. Good baleage will not have an off odor, while butyric acid baleages can have a very putrid odor. Bales that squat or that have effluent seeping out are likely excessively wet and have undergone undesirable fermentation. Finally, bales that have holes in the plastic, particularly those formed soon after baling will lead to poor fermentation in that area and even botulism. To assess the damage caused by holes, it may be necessary to take multiple samples at and around the damaged area. It is far safer to discard bales where the holes have allowed significant air infiltration. The worst case of botulism I ever encountered came from feeding from a row of bales wrapped with an inline applicator that had a significant gash in the plastic mid-row. Cows did not experience a problem until they reached the compromised baleage.

Baleage is a valuable option to allow harvest of high quality feed while avoiding rain damage. Even though ensiling parameters for baleage are generally less desirable than chopped haylages at the same moisture content, a fermentation analysis plus careful observation can be very helpful. Baleage with MC between 40 and 60%, cut at early maturing, baled tight and wrapped with six layers of plastic will generally ferment well enough to be stable through one feeding season. High moisture, elevated butyric acid levels, ammonia N above 15% (as percent of total N), ash content above 11%, bad odors and holes in plastic are all indicators that baleage has a high probability of causing feeding problems, even botulism. ~ Dr. Jimmy Henning, for Hay and Forage Grower

Forage Timely Tips: February

  • Continue grazing stockpiled tall fescue if available.
  • Assess grass stands. If thin, consider adding legumes .
  • Begin frost seeding with at least 6-8 lb/A red and 1-2 lb/A white clover on closely grazed pastures.
  • On pastures with lower fertility, consider adding 10-15 lb/A annual lespedeza to the above recommendation.
  • Consider applying nitrogen in late February on some pastures to promote early growth.
  • Sign up for shared use drills for spring renovation.
  • Service and calibrate no-till drills
  • Apply lime and fertilizer according to soil test if not done in fall.

If Cows Could Talk

If cows could talk, it would be easy to figure out how good your hay is. Until then, we have to utilize a forage test to tell us if our hay is getting the job done that we think it is. Unless you are used to looking at forage reports, they can be hard to interpret. What follows is my version of a real simple explanation of the major terms on a forage report.

Photo by Jimmy Henning

Key Forage Quality Terms, In Order of Importance

Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) – This is the most important value on the report. I’ll bet you expected crude protein to be listed first. Actually, protein is seldom the limiting factor in ruminants, except for growing or lactating animals. TDN is a calculated estimate of the digestibility or energy content of forage. TDN goes down as forages become more mature. Energy is the most limiting nutrient in most if not all forage based livestock diets.

Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) – This is the relatively indigestible fiber in a forage sample, containing cellulose, lignin and silica. ADF values rise as forages become more mature. ADF and TDN move in opposite directions. The higher the ADF, the lower the TDN.

Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) – This is the total fiber in a forage sample, made up of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, and ash. It is used to estimate intake. Like ADF, NDF values rise with forage maturity. Low NDF values indicate livestock can consume more forage.

Relative Feed Value (RFV) – This is an index for ranking cool-season grass and legume forages based on combining digestibility and intake potential. It is calculated from ADF and NDF. The higher the RFV, the better the quality. The RFV of full bloom alfalfa is about 100. RFV is only valid for ranking similar type forages, such as comparing one grass hay to another.

Crude Protein (CP) – This is an estimate of protein in a forage, calculated by multiplying % nitrogen by 6.25. By now, you are probably exasperated at my listing crude protein at the bottom of this list. I do so to make a point – we have to look further than protein to know if your forage is ‘good.’

Remember that the ultimate measure of forage quality is the performance of the animals to which it is fed. Since cows still can’t talk, you will need to observe how much they eat and how well they maintain body condition to ‘listen’ to what they are telling you about your hay. Happy foraging. ~ Jimmy Henning, from Farmer’s Pride

Extension Agents host Virtual 14th Annual Pastures Please!!

University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agents and Ag Equine Programs will host a virtual Pastures Please!! pasture management workshop from 6 to 7:30 p.m. EST on Jan. 26.  

Horse owners and farm managers will have the opportunity to hear several expert talks, including information about managing carbohydrates in the equine diet, new herbicides and their effectiveness on weed control and wise investments for pasture management. 

The event is hosted annually by Central Kentucky extension agents. Those interested in participating in this free event can register here.  ~ Holly Wiemers, UK Equine Programs.

Pub of the Month: Strategies for Reclaiming Hay Feeding Areas (AGR-255)

Hoof damage from livestock during the winter months can result in almost complete disturbance of desired vegetation and soil structure in and around hay feeding areas. Even well-designed hay feeding pads will have significant damage at the edges where animals enter and leave. Highly disturbed areas create perfect growing conditions for summer annual weeds like spiny pigweed and cocklebur. Weed growth is stimulated by lack of competition from a healthy and vigorous sod and the high fertility from the accumulated dung, urine, and rotting hay. The objective of this publication is to outline strategies for rapidly establishing stands of desirable forage species on these areas. Find this and many more publications here.

Hay Export Market Status and Alfalfa Acreage

There are major changes occurring in alfalfa acreage across the country, especially in California, Nevada, and New Mexico. Part of this drop relates to very tight margins for dairy producers across the U.S. and the fact that dairy nutritionists have been finding ways to replace the protein and fiber benefit of alfalfa with other commodities. One of the major reasons for the drop in alfalfa hay being fed in CA is the abundance of almond hulls that provide decent nutrition and fiber at a low cost. Almond hulls are so cheap because of the dramatic increase in California almond production over the last few years. This increase in almond acres is directly affecting alfalfa acres in the state.

What are the implications to these trends for Kentucky hay producers? Actually, I’m not sure, but they are interesting and we do not live in a silo. ~Ray Smith, UK Forage Specialist. Note: if you are interested the presentations given at the workshop they should be available at the CA Alfalfa Workgroup website in the near future. You can find many valuable resources on this website and also videos of past meeting presentations.  https://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu/

Developing Heifers on Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue

Heifer development programs have changed over the years.  In the 1990s, there were still many farmers that calved heifers at 3 years of age and nearly their mature weight.     Since that time, most progressive cattlemen have moved to calving heifers at 2 years old, and 65% of their mature weight, which improves their lifetime productivity relative to calving 3 year olds when done properly.    

Recently, the concept of “slow heifer development” has been introduced to cattlemen. The logic of this approach is that when you push heifers to a heavy weight (65% of mature weight), the feeding program is expensive and some heifers that need the supplement to grow enough to breed will “crash” at some point, due to their higher nutrient requirements. 

Heifers that are developed more slowly (to about 58% of their mature weight at breeding) will typically not lose as much weight and condition as the heavier heifers after they calve and enter their second breeding season.  Some heifers with very high nutritional requirements may not breed the first time in a slow development program, but those big, inefficient heifers are likely to drop out of the cow herd early anyway.

A slow development program means that it is possible to create forage systems where little if any supplementation is needed during development.  A heifer that has a 205 day weight of 550 lbs needs to gain 200 lbs over the next 6 months to be adequately developed; an average daily gain of only about 1.21 lb per day.  It is very possible to achieve that gain without supplement (unless the base forage happens to be toxic KY-31 tall fescue or bermudagrass). 

Over the last two decades, North Carolina State University has done extensive research on developing heifers using tall fescue, with a focus on supplementation and the use of novel endophyte varieties.  This work has shown that heifers on toxic tall fescue actually have gains comparable to novel endophyte tall fescue in stockpile systems after the toxin levels start to decline in early winter.  When warm weather hits in late spring, the gains of heifers on toxic tall fescue are very low, while heifers grazing novel endophyte tall fescue outperform them by about 1 lb/day.  In this work, heifers grazing novel endophyte tall fescue during both the winter and spring season ended up weighing over 100 lbs more than the heifers grazing the toxic tall fescue.  Many of the problems with heifer development on toxic tall fescue can be overcome by feeding additional concentrates, but that is expensive and labor intensive compared to using novel endophyte tall fescue.~ Dr. Matt Poore, NCSU professor and president of the Alliance for Grassland Renewal

Learn more about adopting novel tall fescue varieties at the Alliance for Grassland Renewal’s workshops:  February 23-35 (evenings) Virtually, or March 25 in Lexington. Learn more here

Forage Timely Tips: January

  • Remove animals from very wet pastures to limit pugging and soil compaction. 
  • Feed best hay to animals with highest nutritional needs.
  • Supplement poor quality hay as indicated by forage testing. 
  • Feed hay in areas where mud is less of a problem.
  • Feed hay in poor pastures to increase soil fertility and enhance organic matter.
  • Consider “bale grazing” – set out hay when the ground is dry or frozen. Use temporary fencing to allocate bales as needed. 
  • Use variety trial results to select seed for spring renovation.
  • Prepare for pasture renovation by purchasing seeds, inoculant, etc. and getting equipment ready.

Optimizing Existing Forage Resources

Although we like to think of pastures as monocultures, as stands mature, they become a complex mixture of plants that are adapted to the region, soil type, and management regime.  So, the question becomes do we fight mother nature and try to establish and maintain pure stands or do we work to optimize the management of these complex mixtures to better meet our needs?  Here are a few ways we can optimize management of forage resources already existing on our farms. 

Liming pastures – In a mixed sward, adding lime to a soil with a low pH would tend encourage the clover.  If we did not add lime, we might expect grasses and acid tolerant legume species to be present in greater quantities. Lime also makes other nutrients in the soil more available to the plant.  If pastures need lime as indicated by a soil test, then lime should be the first thing applied.

Fertilizing pastures – Improved grasses and legumes need good soil fertility to persist and be productive.  If soil fertility is low it will favor species that are more efficient at extracting and using nutrients from the soil. 

Nitrogen – Application rate and timing can also be used to shift the botanical composition of pastures.  Nitrogen fertilization will tend to encourage grass growth shifting the composition toward grasses and away from legumes.  Early spring and late summer applications will encourage cool-season grass growth. In contrast, late spring and summer applications will shift the pasture composition toward crabgrass and bermudagrass in mixed stands. 

Grazing management and forage plant growth – After defoliation (grazing or cutting), plants need energy to regrow.  In grasses this energy comes from two places.  The first is leaf area remaining after grazing.  The remaining leaf area is like a solar panel that captures sunlight and converts it into energy (sugars and carbohydrates) that the plant can use for regrowth.  The more leaf area we leave, the larger the solar panel and the faster pastures will regrow. The second place that energy comes from for regrowth, is stored carbohydrates.  The location of these stored energy reserves depends on the plant species.  Grasses that store their energy in the stem base are less tolerant to close and frequent grazing compared with grasses that store their energy in stolons and rhizomes that are safely below the grazing height of livestock.  Resting pastures allows leaf area to regrow and carbohydrate reserves to be stored up. 

Grazing height – In our naturalized pastures, close grazing will tend to favor grass and legume species that have leaf area and energy stores close to the soil surface.  Close grazing results in a shift toward low growing species such as bermudagrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and white clover.  A higher grazing height would tend to shift the botanical composition back toward our tall growing cool-season grass species such as tall fescue and orchardgrass. 

Grazing frequency – Some species are more tolerant of frequent grazing.  These species tend to have leaf area close to the soil surface that is retained even under close grazing and include bluegrass, white clover, and bermudagrass.  This means that grazing naturalized pastures closely and frequently will tend to shift the botanical composition toward these species.

Grazing timing – Grazing a mixture that includes both cool- and warm-season species during the summer months will tend to shift the botanical composition toward the warm-season species, especially during and after droughts.

Using improved varieties – These varieties may offer considerable benefits in terms of improved yield, animal performance, and persistence. 

In most cases, working with nature greatly improves the chances of success.  Grazing is no different.  Successful grazing systems are based on forage species that are well adapted to local conditions and managing those species to meet specific needs. ~ Dr. Chris Teutsch, for Cow Country News.