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Hay has been more expensive after an extremely wet spring and a hot summer. As small-ruminant producers look to reduce forage costs, baled silage or “baleage” is a possible choice. But there are several factors to consider when evaluating the choice.

Baleage requires less drying time than conventionally baled hay, so it can be made in poor drying conditions. It can be cut at an optimal time for quality whereas dry-hay harvest requires a three- to four-day period of dry weather. That can create an overly mature and poorer-quality stored forage. With baleage there is less leaf loss at baling and feeding as compared to dry hay.

Baleage is softer and often more palatable to livestock. It is typically harvested at 40 percent to 60 percent dry matter. Dry hay often has 85 percent or greater dry matter.

Baleage can be fed like hay. But to prevent spoilage it needs to be used in about five days after unwrapping the bale – or three to four days in warm weather and six to seven days in winter. That means there is a minimum herd size for feeding baleage -- about 25 to 30 ewes or 40 to 50 does for a 4-foot by 4-foot bale.

Baleage can pose a health risk due to listeriosis or “circling disease” in sheep and goats. Small ruminants are more susceptible to the disease than cattle. Listeriosis-causing bacteria are present in soil and thrive in the presence of oxygen in silage during cold and moist conditions. Carefully wrapped, stored and prepared baleage minimizes listeriosis risk. Conversely poor fermentation or damage to plastic covering greatly increases risk.

The forage must be cut at the proper time to insure there are enough fermentable carbohydrates for good fermentation. Bales must be tight to exclude as much oxygen as possible. They must be baled at the correct moisture. Forages that are too wet – more than 70 percent moisture – or too dry – less than 30 percent moisture – won’t properly ferment.

Tightly wrapped bales should be allowed to ferment for six to eight weeks. Integrity of the plastic wrap must be maintained throughout storage. Bales must be moved using equipment that doesn’t puncture the plastic wrap. Holes caused by moving bales or other factors must be prevented or sealed quickly. When unwrapping a bale to feed animals inspect it for mold. Remove any questionable material before feeding.

Feeding baleage can improve forage quality while reducing feed cost for sheep and goat farms, but care must be taken to minimize listeriosis risk.

Visit extension.msu.edu for more information.

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Michael Metzgeer is a Michigan State University-Extension educator in small ruminants and forages.