Baling Not Straightforward

To Bale or Not To Bale, That is the Silage Question

Cheryl Anderson , DTN Staff Reporter
Whether or not to make round bale silage is not an easy question, but bales won't disappear anytime soon. (DTN\Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- When it comes to deciding how to store silage, will round bale silage be a good fit for your operation?

Marvin Hall, professor of forage management at Pennsylvania State University, offers producers some pros and cons of storing silage in large round bales. In order to make round bale silage, the forage must be wilted to 50%-60% moisture, then baled in a round baler, then ensiled inside a plastic cover.


Using round bale silage is a workable option for any farmer and does not require a large silo or haylage harvesting equipment. It is of the greatest benefit to smaller operations with insufficient silo capacity to store surplus forage.

One of the advantages of round bale silage is the ability to expand storage when all a producer's bunks are full. It is also a low-cost method of storing long-stem grasses or legumes.

Silage bales also provide the convenience of being easily moved around to various locations, ready for planned consumption times. Hall said producers usually locate the silage bales close to feeding, providing more convenience than concrete silos, which may require more trips to transport the silage to feed bunks.

Farmers may also find an advantage at harvest time, as cut forage only needs to wilt a few hours before it is baled, compared to drying hay, which can take several days. The shortened harvest time can also minimize damage to the regrowth from traffic and/or the cut hay laying on top of regrowth and shading it, which can reduce yields.

"The goal is to get the hay off as quickly as you can before those buds have a chance to start to regrow," Hall said.

Baling with a higher moisture content also reduces leaf loss and gives producers high-quality protein. For round bale silage, producers should aim for between 50% and 65% moisture, similar to 60%-70% moisture for a bunk silo. Silage to be placed in tower silos, however, can be a bit drier, around 60% moisture.

Hall explained that in tower silos, the weight of all the silage above will pack it tighter, resulting in a lot less oxygen between the forage particles.

"You want the forage packed tight so that it squeezes out as much oxygen as possible," he said. "Because if you have excess oxygen, the respiration taking place in the cells also burns up sugars and energy that you want to keep for the animals."


Baling silage does present some environmental concern as the wraps produce a lot of leftover plastic that cannot be reused. Hall said not all states have the possibility of recycling the plastic, leaving producers at a loss for what to do with all the plastic they're generating. Some farmers make piles and burn the plastic, although that is likely prohibited in many areas, Hall said. Depending on the location, some farmers have companies that will pick up the plastic and recycle it for them.

Another problem is that the used plastic is often not clean.

"When farmers cut those bales open, sometimes they don't get all the material off," he said. "The plastic will have chunks of forage stuck to it, which can mess up the recycling process."

Another disadvantage is that making the silage bales is labor intensive and usually requires a well-designed feeder.

"Silage bales generally require more manual labor than flipping a few switches on the silo unloader," he said.

Hall added that there is no advantage to round silage bales as far as waste is concerned. He added that producers may notice that feeding and trampling losses with silage bales are comparable to, or can even be greater than losses with hay.

While rainstorms and humidity are less of a problem with silage than hay, moisture is still important, Hall said. Producers don't need to leave the hay out in the field as long to dry, because they can bale it at a much higher moisture level.

"If you bale it too dry, it doesn't pack well and you end up with too much oxygen for the anaerobic activity," he said.

Also, with silage bales, producers must be cautious in ensuring they have a tight seal on each bale, because air leaks can cause mold, spoilage and decreased quality.

One big disadvantage of silage bales is that storage costs per ton are greater than for permanent storage structures, because producers must keep buying plastic. For that reason, producers with large operations may wish to go with bunk or trench silos, which enables them to store more tons of forage at much less cost than using plastic.

Also, Hall pointed out that ensiling does not improve forage quality.

"What goes in there is what's in there. It doesn't make it better by fermenting it," he said. "It's not a band aid that can fix poor management."

Cheryl Anderson can be reached at


Cheryl Anderson