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Articles - Hay Crop Silage As An Alternative

Hay crop silage as an alternative to dry hay
by James DeMatteo

As a hay farmer you know that the precursor to a good rainstorm is often the cutting of a prime field of hay. This previously explained mystery is prompting more and more hay farmers to move towards hay crop silage as an alternative to dry hay.

I live in an area noteworthy for its "unexplained mysteries"...Roswell, New Mexico. What is commonplace in New Mexico is unheard of in many other major Dairysheds of the United States. We have the privilege of turning the water off when it's haymaking time, our soil types are conducive to alfalfa hay crops, and our elevation and low humidity make wilting a little more predictable.

A quote that predates the famous "Roswell Incident" of 1947 states, "...There's nothing better than putting it up right." W.D. Hoard said this in the late 1930s. Of course, he was talking about forage harvesting and storage, and he was correct!

Many of us have heard the rules of the game for years. Even so, the science of haylage making remains in the shadow of the art of reading the weather, timing the wilting, and correct length of cut so that you harvest the best possible product for the ultimate consumer - the cow.

It's not too late to make forage decisions and implement changes based on your previous haylage experience. I have worked with people with many years of haylage experience as well as newcomers to the haylage business. Sometimes I hear of people who have "never seen so much milk" since they started feeding haylage. Conversely there are those who have had the opposite experience and thought that the use of haylage in their dairy was not a positive experience.

This past year, I met with a couple of producers who have had 15+ years of experience and had some problems with their haylage. Sometimes the most progressive, technically competent farmers experience problems with the adaptation of new equipment in forage harvesting. Both producers purchased new choppers, and expected to see positive results through faster harvesting. In reality, the new choppers resulted in a clostridia problem at one dairy and an increase in displaced abomasums at another.

Here's how the story goes. In one instance, the purchase of some new forage choppers resulted in a finer cut on the forage, even though the theoretical cut settings were the same on the new choppers as in the old choppers. The finer chopped forage was fed to the cows in the dry and fresh cow groups on the dairy. This had a direct effect on rumen health because the cows didn't have enough "scratch factor" to build a fiber mat in the rumen. As cows freshened, many had twisted stomachs. As a preventative measure, consider having your nutritionist run your forages through a forage particle scorer, like the Penn State scorer, to determine if you want the same particle length as you had last year.

The second client had the common practice of waiting a specific period of time after raking to chop. With the old choppers, that amount of time seemed to work as the ideal wilt time in this climate before chopping. The new choppers dramatically decreased the time lag between windrowing and chopping, and consequently decreased the wilting time. This resulted in haylage that was stored at over 70% moisture. Alfalfa hay that is stored wet will frequently have fermentation that is far less than ideal. The pH of the final haylage product was over 5.9, the haylage had a strong smell of butyric acid and all of the precursors to clostridia bacterial growth were present. This offensive smelling, poorly fermented haylage can decrease dry matter intake at least, and in extreme cases cause cows to die. Now is the time to evaluate how new machinery will effect the performance of your haylage in front of the cow in the 1999-2000 feeding year.

As you make changes based on your past years' experiences with haylage, also consider your cropping/purchasing choices. If you've been trying to grow alfalfa haylage on marginal ground that may be highly acidic or poorly drained, reconsider your strategy. Converting to grass silage from alfalfa silage may be an alternative. If you have a field that has produced a poor crop of alfalfa hay before and you’re asking yourself if you should "just give it one more chance"...Don't! You are frequently further ahead producing an excellent grass hay crop rather than an average alfalfa crop.

Also, take a look at last year's forage analysis. If your ADIN (acid detergent insoluble nitrogen-heat damage) is on the high side, look at your moisture content. You may be putting your haylage up too dry, providing air pockets that set the stage for heat damage.

In short, follow the basics. And reevaluate your management performance to decide if you did it right or if you would like to make some management/equipment changes for 1999-2000.

Management Action Target Monitor Performance
Minimize drying time. Moisture content for proper fermentation. Take moisture tests of "wilted" hay. Form a wide swath to increase drying rate.
Make haylage coarse enough to be good for the overall ration. Set the theoretical length of cut at 3" - 1". Final total ration particle size should provide a minimum of 5# of hay or haylage over 1.5" long. A Penn State Particle Scorer should show greater than 10% in the top screen, 35-50% in the middle screen, and less than 50% in the bottom screen. Butterfat test should be monitored for healthy rumen function.
Fill bags quickly. Minimize spots where compaction was poor. Monitor ADIN (heat damage). Silage pH will indicate proper fermentation.
Proper dry matter content in the finished product. 35 - 45% dry matter. As you approach 30% dry matter you risk a clostridia/butyric acid fermentation problem. As you approach 50% dry matter you risk heat damage/fermentation problems. Monitor dry matter in the haylage with the appropriate target levels to the left. Monitor ADIN (heat damage) and silage pH indicating proper fermentation.
Wait to feed. Wait 14 days until you feed fermented forages. Total fermentation needs to have occurred in order to have an ideal finished product. With Ag-Bag storage bags, you can test the haylage before you feed it and segregate by quality.
Feed it consistently. Feed about 2" - 4" per day. Feed out with a clean bag face, to minimize oxygen exposure and refermentation.
Make appropriate changes. Based on the above measurements, and ultimately how the cows perform. Monitor performance in lactation, length of cut, butterfat, ADIN, pH and regular forage analysis.

A lot of this information is straight-forward, simple, and common-sense management. But as our farming and dairy operations increase in size, we need to insure that all of the managers are talking with the cows. In some cases, the purchasing manager needs to be communicating with the farmer/supplier to insure a consistent, high quality product is placed in front of the cows.

There's no question, the art of haylage making is still very much alive. If we try to just concentrate on the science of haylage production, we will continue to have unexplained mysteries. As with most mysteries, good communication and a focus on the basics can go a long way towards explaining what really happened. I don't know what really happened in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, but I'll bet a focus on true communication and the facts at the time of the "incident" would have made it a non-incident.

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