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Struggling to Harvest Bermudagrass? Is Baleage an Option?

Some times there are no good solutions to a problem. For example, I received this hard question from a County Agent earlier this week: “I have a client that is worried about getting enough dry weather to make hay and wanted to know if it was a better idea to make baleage out of his 6-week-old bermudagrass? Or should he just wait until he gets a good drying window and try to dry it out for hay? I understand that mature bermuda does not generally produce as great a product as it would if it were harvested earlier (say 4-4.5 weeks of age). So, I just wanted to know your opinion.”

This is a difficult question because the value of 6-week old bermudagrass hay is not high (likely <85 RFQ and worth <$100/ton) and making baleage out of it means that one will be adding another $20+/ton to the cost of the product with little or no gain in forage quality (i.e., it’ll still only be worth $100/ton). In nearly all situations like this, making baleage will therefore not be economical.

Bermudagrass can be ensiled as baleage (or any other silage storage method, as far as that goes). However, to really make baleage pencil out economically for bermudagrass, the producer must focus on harvesting high quality forage (4-4.5 weeks) and feeding it to livestock classes that will cost-effectively benefit from that higher quality. Drs. Curt Lacy (formerly at UGA), Ross Pruitt (LSU), and I conducted an economic analysis of baled silage to store bermudagrass and winter annuals. Our conclusion was that making baleage out of bermudagrass would result in significant savings of harvest and storage losses compared to making hay and storing outside. BUT, those harvest and storage losses were not quite enough to make baleage-making economically feasible for bermudagrass unless there was a major improvement in forage quality (for example, baleage makes it more feasible to harvest higher value forage because the forage is at the target stage of maturity). In contrast, making baleage out of winter annuals would almost always make economic sense. Click here for more from that study. Click here for an Extension pub on baleage economics that Dr. Pruitt published at LSU.

There is nothing magic about wrapping it in plastic. Poor quality going in will be just as bad coming out of that wrap. In this producer’s case, the bermudagrass is very likely to be low quality forage. Wrapping it up as baleage will just make it more expensive low quality forage. From a silage standpoint, bermudagrass in this late stage of advanced maturity will have very little carbohydrates upon which fermentation bacteria can act. Therefore, it is unlikely to ferment very well. Consequently, the product will be very unstable. As soon as the plastic is removed, they forage will begin to heat. In as little as 24 hours, the forage may better described as a half-rotten compost heap. That said, as long as it is wrapped in plenty of plastic (6-8 layers  or more) and kept from getting any holes in it, it should be stable while in storage with only a little white mold (not dangerous) around the outside. It could be safe to feed to beef cattle, as long as the oxygen is excluded. However, intake levels will decrease and there may not be enough intake to meet the animal’s needs. Further, if the bales smell soured or putrid, the producer should NOT feed them and should dispose of them as mulch or erosion control (in a place one won’t mind the smell). Such bales may be dangerous, as they may contain toxins that could poison the livestock.

All this being said, weather like we’ve been having may make baleage this producer’s ONLY practical option for getting this material off the field. If this material isn’t removed from the field, the next growth cycle can’t begin. The unenviable choice in this case is to A) scrap off the bales (i.e., bale it just to get it off the field), B) wait on a drying window and make low quality hay whenever he gets the opportunity and sell it as mulch or use it as roughage, OR C) the producer can make baleage off of it now and take his chances. If he chooses baleage, he may still end up with mulch.

Only the producer can determine if they find this to be economically justified for their operation. In this case, baleage is unlikely to be the most economical option.