More and more producers are looking at plastic silage bags as a viable means of storing their forages. That's no surprise - silage bags offer an economical means of storing forages, while maintaining high-quality feed.

"I'm a firm believer in bags," says David Pinheiro, a partner in Parreira-Pinheiro & Sons Dairy, in Tipton, Calif. And, Pinheiro's firm belief in bags stands to good reason.

Pinheiro has used bags for the past eight years. During that time, he has seen a feed shrinkage of only 4 percent, compared to a previous feed shrinkage of 15 percent when he fed hay silage from a covered pile.

At Dan-je Holsteins in Durand, Wis., Dan Weisenbeck switched from upright silos to bags about 10 years ago. "We feel the quality of feed in the bags is better," he says. "We're really happy with the results we've gotten." And, Weisenbeck adds, "I surely wouldn't have stuck with them this long if I had problems."

Maybe your thoughts echo those of Weisenbeck's - you might give bagging a try. But if you run into problems, that's it, the bags are history.

However, that doesn't have to be your mindset if you take time to learn about some common problems experienced during the storage period. Once you know what problems to expect, you can learn how to handle them. Then, like Pinheiro and Weisenbeck, you can get good results from using bags, also.

Here are four common problems during the storage period and how to avoid them:

1. Feed removal problems
Although you can't control the weather, you can take a few precautions to make feed removal and feed mixing easier during the bitterly cold days of winter and the hot, humid days of summer.

During the winter, especially during a cold snap, you can expect the feed in a storage bag to freeze. It happens to Weisenbeck all the time on his 200-cow dairy in northwest Wisconsin.

When temperatures fall into the single digits, Weisenbeck often finds frozen feed 6 to 8 inches deep into a bag. However, he hasn't run into any feed removal or mixing problems as a result. Weisenbeck credits the augers in his TMR mixer for breaking up the frozen feed, leaving only four or five, 8-inch pieces of frozen feed which need to be sorted out of the feed bunk.

If you are still concerned about handling frozen feed, try facing the bag's open end toward the south, says Bruce Sterr, president of Knowles Produce and Trading, an Ag-Bag dealer in Lomira, Wis. That way, the sun can warm the bag and alleviate some of the freezing which might occur. In addition, you should leave the bag open in the front and not completely cover it back up after you remove feed. However, you can let some of the plastic hang over the end of the bag to prevent snow from getting on the feed.

Likewise, in summer, you should keep the end of the bag open to prevent feed from heating up and cooling down. It is especially critical during hot weather to remove only as much feed as you will use in one day - on average, at least 6 to 8 inches per day.

In fact, that's exactly what Pinheiro in California's Central Valley does.

Instead of digging into the feed with a four by four loader, Pinheiro and his employees slice the bag off as low to the ground as possible. Then, they peel back the sides and the top of the plastic bag - similar to how you peel a banana. By doing so, he exposes only as much feed as he will need for one day.

Of course, an unloader or skid-steer can still scoop up the plastic at the bottom of the bag. Yet, by peeling away the amount he needs for one day, Pinheiro minimizes the feed's exposure to air. In addition, he minimizes the amount of plastic which gets into the feed or scattered around his 2,000-cow dairy.

2. Damage caused by animals
Wild animals, such as mice, rats, racoon, deer and birds, can puncture a silage bag by digging, tearing, or pecking at the bag. To avoid this problem, don't place bags near areas where wildlife live, such as a wooded area or an old shed.

To control deer, you can use electric fencing. While an electric fence won't keep rodents away from your bags, moth balls may help. Sterr suggests diluting moth balls in water and pouring the mixture around the bag's perimeter. And, you can pour a few inches of limestone around the bag to keep rats away, he adds.

Although lime, moth balls and electric fences won't keep birds off of your bags, bird netting can help. You can purchase a 12-foot by 100-foot roll of bird netting for about $50 per roll at your local hardware store.

As an additional measure to control wildlife and birds, always clean up spilled feed around the bag. And, mow around the bags to keep tall grasses and weeds from attracting wildlife.

Although wild animals often get blamed for damage done to bags, you also need to keep children, as well as dogs and other domestic animals, off of the plastic, as they can damage bags, too.

To pinpoint any damage caused by animals or children, "make it a routine to check the bags every day," says Gunnar Josefsson, assistant scientist in the department of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. If necessary, delegate the responsibility to the person in charge of feeding.

If you notice holes in the bags, patch them as quickly as possible. Use a special tape available from your silage bag manufacturer or a good-quality vinyl or plastic tape to patch holes, says Jay Elshoff, a dairy producer and Ag-Bag dealer with Golden Hills Sales in St. Marys, Ohio. Don't use duct tape because it isn't air-tight, he adds.

In some cases, such as when a dog runs across the top of the bag, it's not possible to patch every hole. In this type of situation, you can use a heavy vinyl paint available from a hardware store, Elshoff says.

If the silage has fermented properly, you can get away with a few holes. However, if holes occur while the silage is fermenting, you should always patch them. Likewise, always patch holes on the top of the bag to prevent water from getting inside, Elshoff says.

3. You can't get to the feed
Sometimes, producers find themselves with "an island of feed in a sea of mud," says Brian Holmes, extension agricultural engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In other words, they can't get to the feed stored in bags because the ground is too wet.

"The bag doesn't care where you put it," Elshoff says. But, you will care when you have to wallow through the mud to get feed out.

Therefore, to prevent this from happening, plan ahead. Choose a location which drains well and provides enough slope so water runs away from the bags. That, and a little common sense can keep you out of the mud after a heavy rain or during a wet time of year. In addition, choose a location which is easy to get to with an unloader or skid-steer and forage packing equipment. And, make sure the ground can support this type of heavy equipment, Holmes says.

In addition, your bags need to lie on a solid, well-drained base. At the very minimum, you should have a crushed gravel base for a bag to rest on. Place smaller-sized gravel on top of the base to provide a smooth surface so the bag doesn't get punctured. You also can use other solid bases such as concrete and asphalt. Extend the base 10 feet beyond the end of each bag, Holmes recommends. For example, a 150-foot bag would need to rest on a base which is at least 170 feet long.

Although a solid, well-drained base is the rule-of-thumb, it may not always be economical to do, especially if you use a large number of bags.

Weisenbeck, the producer from Wisconsin, has found a way around this. When the spring thaw arrives in mid-March, he draws feed from four of his 20 bags which have been sitting on a concrete slab. Each bag contains a different feed, so he doesn't have to worry about struggling through a muddy mess around his other 16 bags.

Once you have chosen a location, allow some distance between the bags, Josefsson advises. That way, a person running the skid-steer won't run into other bags while he is removing feed from a particular bag. As a guideline, allow 4 feet of space between each bag.

4. Weather-related damage
Weather is often unpredictable. And that can mean bag damage and loss of feed quality if a hail storm or tornado strikes.

Obviously, if hail or a tornado damages or shreds a bag beyond repair, you will need to re-bag the feed as soon as possible. In addition, make sure your insurance policy not only covers the plastic bag, but covers the feed inside the bag as well.

Before you begin filling silage bags this year, identify the common problems - weather damage, damage caused by animals, poor location and difficult feed removal - that you might run into during the storage period. Then, take steps to avoid these problems.

What if the bag splits?

When a bag splits, it unzips from one end to the other, exposing the feed within. Although infrequent, it can happen, says Bruce Sterr, president of Knowles Produce and Trading, an Ag-Bag dealer in Lomira, Wis.

If this happens, you need to act quickly and re-bag the feed as soon as possible. This will protect your forage quality.