Be Mindful with Haylage

Published on Fri, 03/29/2019 - 8:06am

  Be Mindful with Haylage

 By Jaclyn Krymowski for American Dairymen Magazine

 When it comes to your forages, chances are you’re regularly trying to maximize the outputs. One of the best ways to do this is in the form of baleage and haylage. These are regular staples on many dairies, and for many good reasons. Making haylage or baleage instead of traditional dry bales is a great way to maximize tonnage and increase digestibility, just to name a couple. But as with many things in the dairying, for all its benefits there are several hidden dangers lurking out of sight. It only takes one mistake at the right time for this nutritional cornerstone to turn into a heap of toxins.

What’s the deal?
Obviously, moisture is key to fermented forages. According to Alabama Cooperative Extension, this must be anywhere from 40-60% moisture (compared to dry hay which sits at >20% moisture). Keeping within this range is absolutely crucial not only to successfully make a high-quality feedstuff, but also for your animals health. Excessive moisture can result from harvesting at the wrong time, improper fermentation or (in the case of baleage) compromised wrapping.
Important to note is that these elements are also crucial to storage stability. When haylages are high in butyric acid and consequently lower in lactic acid, they tend to be less stable when there is exposure to air and mixed in a TMR/PMR diet.

Properly done, most livestock tend to find haylage more palatable than dry hay. However, when acetic acid levels increase, again due to the contents bring overly wet, feed intake tends to significantly decrease.
Nutritional content is also something that can be compromised by improper moisture. Silage leachage is a serious concern. Not only is this a biological and environmental hazard, (remember, too much leachage in the wrong place can be as toxic as a manure spill!) it can also reduce nutritional value. Leachage can runoff important nutrients and carbohydrates, thus reducing nutrient quality.

Other cautions and warnings
Like with any forage, a lot of the quality is dependent on the harvesting and handling. These sometimes-fatal consequences have plagued livestock for as long as man has been using fermentation.
The anaerobic bacteria, in the process of converting sugar to lactic acid, lowers the pH of the forage. When at or below the appropriate level, about 4.5, most of the dangerous bacteria cannot grow and thrive in the environment. However, when the pH rises too high it can leave the door wide open for bacterial spoilage to creep in and contaminate what would otherwise be a nutrient-dense forage source.
Certain bacteria, such as the family Clostridia, will gladly make their home here. When the moisture content is too high, approximately 61-70%, Clostridial bacteria are almost guaranteed. Botulism is one such disease that results from this bacterial family. This typically-fatal illness can happen from improper fermentation and/or organic matter (such as dead animals unintentionally harvested) left to decompose in bales.
Listeriosis, or circling disease, is caused by bacteria from the Listeriaceae family which also arise from a higher pH, typical at about 5.4. You can find this happening anywhere there’s decaying forages that has been exposed to the air for too long.
And of course, mold is another simple but equally serious issue. Mold allows for the perfect environment for a host of other bacteria and fungus, some of which can cause abortions. If this is just a common thin layer of white on the outside of a bale or around the corners of the silage bunker, it can be removed and safely fed. But a prolific mold problem beyond this may be cause to destroy an entire crop of silage.
As with dry hay, too much moisture can also pose a serious risk for causing fires. If you are wrapping your own hay, be sure to have a high-quality moisture tester on hand and test both before and after harvest. If you are purchasing, be sure that your seller is experienced and wraps appropriately.
Poor quality baleage and/or inappropriate feeding can lead to nutritional issues like any other feedstuff. There are plenty of stories out there of heifers failing to thrive or cows dropping weight because the management thought their forage ration was adequate. It can really pay to have your baleage tested so you are aware of the exact nutritional quality you are feeding.
Baleage and haylage, in spite of their temperamental nature, tend to be one of the most favorable options for many dairymen for their efficiency and quality.  Remind all those responsible for feeding and managing forages to stay vigilant and know the telltale signs of poor and contaminated haylages. As with so many other things, a few precautionary steps here will help keep the road ahead clear.