If Josh Phares gave a "Most Valuable Forage" award, the ryegrass baleage he puts up every spring would win hands down. "We feed it to our fall-calving cows when they calve [because] the native grasses aren't very high quality," the Clinton, Louisiana, cattleman says.
Fall calving is part of Phares' market strategy, so changing seasons isn't an option here. The family has built a strong market for F1 heifer calves, and customers want those heifers fall-born.
"That's what makes the baleage so important," Phares notes. "We don't have to feed any supplement to keep the cows in good condition and ready to breed back."
Baleage, or high-moisture hay wrapped in plastic and ensiled, is also his forage of choice for preconditioning those heifer calves -- as well as the ones he buys, develops, breeds and resells. "They'll go to eating it the same day they get here. There is not a lot of lag time and bunk-breaking," he says.
Besides palatability, Phares says he gets crude protein counts that average in the mid to high teens but can go as high as 22%. Total digestible nutrient (TDN) readings on ryegrass average 60 to 65%.
University of Georgia (UGA) Extension forage specialist Dennis Hancock calls baleage "rocket fuel," noting it can even put pounds on a lactating cow.
Phares says they focus on ryegrass baleage, because that is the highest-quality grass they can grow in the area. To harvest it at peak nutritional value as dry hay is virtually impossible.
"If we're able to get an early cutting, we start the second week in March," Phares explains. "We try to cut it when it is all leaf and no stem, before the flag leaf appears and when it is in the pure vegetative stage."
Ryegrass does double duty, as it is limit-grazed until March, when it literally outgrows the herd.
"Then, we section off the excess grass and bale it. We try not to waste any, and we will keep baling until it heads out," says Phares, adding they occasionally bale and wrap summer annuals, too. Those include brown mid-rib pearl millet, sorghum-sudan and iron-clay peas. He stresses whatever the forage, it needs to be put up in a leafy, vegetative stage for maximum value.
"People think you can take lower-quality forage and, through ensiling, magically make it better feed. That isn't true. Being able to put up high-moisture hay does allow you to preserve quality, but the nutrients are in the leaf. If you overdry it, you lose a lot of leaves. This way, you have to handle it a lot less."
Taylor Hendricks, a forage consultant based in Tifton, Georgia, agrees. She notes the quality advantages of baleage come from a timely harvest and less loss from leaf shatter. But, she adds, "if you bale garbage, you get garbage."
With forages like bahiagrass and bermudagrass, Phares cuts, rakes and bales the same day.
"We'll cut it early in the morning, bale at midday and wrap it by mid-afternoon. As long as we don't get too ambitious and cut down too much, we can put up 50 bales in a day with our usual crew of two to three people. If we do get a rain shower mid- to late-afternoon, it doesn't bother me."
Lush ryegrass can be a different story, especially early spring when they start baling it.
"A lot of times, we may have to wait two days to bale and ted it because it is so high in moisture," he says. As for the ideal moisture content, Phares notes they aim for 40 to 50% but adds, "it is different for every type of grass. Bahiagrass is dry; crabgrass is leafy. Bermudagrass can go either way."
No matter the forage species, he says they try to get a good wilt through all the grass. Uniform moisture helps how it bales and ensiles.
"It is virtually impossible to get it all baled at the perfect moisture," he admits, "but that's the nature of farming. At the moisture level we bale, I've never seen it affect the preservation or how cattle eat it."
They do leave it wrapped for at least 28 days so it will fully ensile. And, when it comes to feeding the high-moisture hay, consultant Hendricks recommends a hay ring or cone feeder to keep waste to a minimum. She also says to put out no more than cattle will eat in a day or two.
"As soon as you open a bale, the pH increases, and bacteria begins to grow," she explains.
Waste isn't a problem with the Phares' cattle. "If the quality is right, they'll eat it down," he says.
They do conserve by feeding baleage based on nutrient needs of specific groups of cattle. High-quality ryegrass baleage normally goes to heifers and lactating cows, and lower-quality perennial baleage to dry cows.
As for the economics of buying a bale wrapper, which can easily run $30,000 to $40,000 for an in-line model, UGA's Hancock says there are reasons to make the investment. "You reduce feeding and storage losses. With baleage, cattle will lick the ground," he says.
In addition, he notes baleage reduces the amount of supplemental feed needed. With pasture, feed and forage costs accounting for around two-thirds of the operating expense of a cow/calf operation, that's crucial. Hancock notes the economics also depend on what type of baleage a producer intends to make.
"With winter annuals, you can end up with really good-quality baleage. It is a lot more difficult to pencil this out if you just put up bermudagrass."
Phares and his family have been putting up baleage for 20 years and say they have no regrets. "The equipment cost is higher on the front end, but the baler cost is fairly negligible compared to the opportunity to put up better hay. It virtually takes rain out of the equation," Phares says.
"Even with our summer hay, we don't have a lot of barn storage, so wrapping it in plastic makes economic sense," Phares says. "If you figure the loss you get in a year's worth of storage outside, it more than pays for itself."
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