Precision Dairy: Better with baleage

Editor's note: The following article appears in the July 2015 issue of Dairy Herd Management.


Dale and Larry Deetz, partners in Dugan Valley Dairy, Mondovi, Wis., have swamp ground full of grass, high hills with varying grass and legume species, and some good Roundup Ready alfalfa ground. When they lost some land assets with a partner, they decided to try a year of putting everything into baleage as they scrambled to do just as much with less. With baleage, they gained the ability to get hay harvested faster, while managing wide crop variations.

Dale, who manages the feed, soon figured out a few things about baleage. First, he realized the higher-moisture feed fit well in their goal for flexibility.

"We use a lot of part-time work here, and keep things pretty flexible," Dale explained. He and Larry built Dugan Valley Dairy as a five-robot 290-cow facility, utilizing four DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems for the milking herd, and one for the fresh cows. With a flexible work schedule due to the automatic milking, they also like the flexibility in the field.

Their guided-flow system feeds pellets in both the robot and an outside component feeder, about 8 pounds of dry matter (DM) per cow between the two. An additional 41 DM pounds comes in the form of a partially mixed ration in front of the cows, and 12.5 pounds of that is all baleage, every day.

Doubting the decision

At first thought of the idea of all baleage, Dale and Larry called their brother, Don, a nutritionist with GPS Consulting.

Don worried the size of the bales would not allow them to get a proper mix. So, in preparation for baleage, Dale modified the TMR mixer, installing hard-facing on all flighting, lining the sides with stainless steel, and adding 19-inch knives.

The modifications produced the desired mixing. "Don came out and said if he didn't know, he wouldn't have guessed we had baleage in the ration; just that you needed to sharpen your knives," Dale said, referring to the longer length of cut.

With the hilly land found in the driftless region of southwest Wisconsin, Dugan Valley Dairy gets a wide range of crop types off their hay ground. Dale found he could compensate for this variation by mixing several crops of hay together.

"I think we have big advantages over your traditional haylage pile. Our shrink is likely comparative to a stave silo. Look at that face," Dale said, pointing to their most recently exposed 4'x5" bale. "You could never get a face like that on silage, no matter what equipment you have."

After a short time of manually cutting plastic off with a knife, Dale invested in a bale cutter that fits on the front-end loader of his tractor (see sidebar, page 34). The cutter can halve bales to quicken the mixing process, while also holding the plastic, which can be the most cumbersome part of using baleage.

"I bet I cut my baleage mixing time in half after buying the bale cutter," Dale explained. "I quickly cut it, add to the mixer, set down the plastic, add another bale, cut again, and repeat until I have enough weight."

Dale mixes and cuts bales from several hay crops in the TMR mixer, then empties the load onto one of the few concrete pads outside the barn.

"We don't need much concrete for this," Dale insisted. "And tomorrow," he continued, motioning to the impending rain storm, "if I set a bale of baleage here on the gravel, which will be mud tomorrow, and cut it, I won't pick up any dirt or mud."

When we visited in mid-June, Dale was mixing about 3.5 1,800-lb. bales a day into the ration, utilizing bales from the first crop of 2015, third and fourth crops of 2014, and also new seeding. By labeling bales as they put them into the baleage lines with spray paint, he knows exactly which crop he is using.

Every time he opens up a new crop he sends a sample in for a forage test, also sending a sample of the mixture of the bales he is using.

In-between crops, they seal off the end by putting wrapped grass hay bales in-between.

During our visit, he opened a one-year old bale that had been unwrapped the day prior, sticking his hand inside. "No heating here," he noted.

When rain is forecast, Dale sets out bales to avoid driving on the gravel/clay platform where the wrapped round bales sit.

One final advantage is the predictability of feed inventories. When Dale knows the number of bales and their weights, he can figure almost exactly when he will run out.

"We've had a few poor hay years here, but last summer I knew I could wait until our July crop was up because I could easily calculate we had enough carryover," Dale explained.

With the aforementioned forage tests, he essentially has a prescription feed by crop for each of his bales.

Big square baleage is next frontier

"When we hit that sweet spot of 50% to 60% moisture, it's a really good feed," Dale said. "But even when we don't, especially with the past few wet springs, we're able to wait until we have all four crops in and can feed out any of the stuff that's too wet in a mixture with the great quality hay.

"That way, when we change crops, we are only changing one of our four bales at a time. So we might change 25% of our hay in the ration, but on a dry matter basis it's only a small percentage of what the cows are eating.

The downfall of the process, Dale said, is weight. If they cannot make their own baleage, it is too costly to transport the "water" included as extra weight in baleage versus buying lighter dry hay bales.

They also need bigger tractors and sturdy forks to handle the baleage, which might weigh more than 2,000 lbs. per bale.

They now own all their own equipment to get the entire process done. The day before our visit, baling was done by noon, with every bale wrapped by 7:30 p.m.

Now that they are happy with the investment in round baleage, Dale says he is going to find a way to try the next step: making big square baleage.

"With the research I've done, I think I can cut our total wrapping costs in half."