Haylage: Back to the Basics – Dr. Michelle Windle, Vita Plus
Click here to download Windle’s PowerPoint presentation.
Harvest season can seem like a sprint from one field to another. However, taking the time to do the basics correctly when harvesting haylage will help keep custom harvesters and dairy producers in business, according to Dr. Michelle Windle, Vita Plus forage products and dairy technical service specialist.
“What you do is going to affect a producer’s bottom line,” Windle said during her presentation at the Vita Plus Custom Harvester Meeting.
Windle explained improper forage handling can result in up to 20- to 40-percent dry matter (DM) losses. In dollars, a 20-percent DM loss on 50,000 tons of silage could translate to a $400,000 loss for the farm.
To help avoid this situation, Windle outlined several areas custom harvesters can emphasize to improve haylage quality. This starts with harvesting at the right time.
Windle said, under normal conditions, the best time to harvest alfalfa is around 28 days. Any sooner and you sacrifice yield; any later and you sacrifice quality. Once haylage dries between 40 and 45 percent DM, then the ensiling process can begin.
The first phase of ensiling is the aerobic stage. During this stage, the crop and aerobic bacteria are still exposed to oxygen and continue to use valuable sugars and proteins for respiration. Windle said removing oxygen quickly makes this stage as short as possible, preserving valuable sugars and proteins.
“The longer you wait, the less sugars you have for a quality fermentation,” Windle said.
Windle emphasized the need for a rapid pH drop during fermentation to prevent DM and energy losses, excess heat production, and growth of undesirable microbes, such as clostridia and Listeria. These microbes reduce the quality and palatability of the silage and can cause rumen upsets and ketosis in cows.
Luckily, Windle said, under normal conditions, naturally occurring lactic acid-producing bacteria grow quickly and prevent clostridial growth. She also said ensiling at the proper DM and covering as soon as possible will help prevent the growth of undesirable microbes. However, as a measure of caution, Windle also recommended using a quality upfront fermenter to promote a rapid pH drop and minimize spoilage.
Another component for successful fermentation is moisture. Having the correct moisture levels is necessary for the bacteria to function and jumpstart fermentation. Correct moisture levels also help reach the right packing density to improve aerobic stability, reduce yeast counts and prevent DM losses.
She said failure to remove oxygen and cover the silage in a timely manner will result in a lower quality crop. Once all oxygen has been removed and the silo is sealed, the anaerobic stage can begin.
During this stage, anaerobic bacteria use those sugars and proteins to lower the pH and make quality forage. This phase will continue until the silo is opened at feedout when oxygen reenters the silage, at which point spoilage becomes a worry if the silage is not fed fast enough.
Windle’s ideal silo includes the following:
- It uses a progressive wedge to obtain optimal densities – at least 15 pounds per cubic foot.
- It has thin layers, about 6 to 8 inches of silage per layer, packed with heavy tractors. You can find the ideal pack tractor weight for your operation with this equation:
(Tons coming off the field per hour) X 800 = Ideal pack tractor weight, in pounds.
- It it’s a pile, it has a run to rise ratio of 3-to-1 and can be driven over from all directions.
- If it’s a bag, it uses stretch marks printed on the bag to help guide packing.
- It fits the storage structure.
Feed quality and nutrition
Forage storage and management