Haylage Better Value, Higher Quality & Safer than Hay for Animals & Humans

When the weather is good in the UK or Ireland, many farmers are tempted to make some hay. However even under ideal conditions, hay will have a much lower nutritional value than haylage or silage and there can also be problems with dust.


by Lloyd Dawson, Sales Director of the Berry bpi group

This can cause serious animal and human health problems. If weather conditions are less than ideal, one can end up with mouldy bales, which can be even more detrimental to animal and human health. In addition, these bales can, on occasions, combust spontaneously and cause unexpected barn fires.

There are significant nutritional differences between haylage and hay to consider when choosing a forage. Hay is cut between June and August, when the grass is at a more mature stage of growth. As such, the moisture content of hay is low and lots of nutrients are lost in the drying process. Haylage is a better source of energy and protein than hay, but it requires careful preparation to prevent spoilage happening during the storage period.

Lloyd Dawson

Lloyd Dawson

The use of mower conditioners will speed up the process of wilting grass to the desired dry matter (DM) levels. It may be tempting to over-dry the crop, however ideally haylage should not exceed 55% DM. The crop should be rowed up in a uniform and even swarth to allow the crop to feed evenly into the bale chamber, thus avoiding the potential formation of air pockets inside the bale.  This is especially important with high DM crops such as haylage.

Holding the bale density is vital to prevent air from re-entering the bale when it is released from the chamber. High DM crops tend to expand more than wetter silage crops; therefore applying an extra layer of netting is advisable. A more recent development in modern round balers is the adoption of the Film&Film binding and wrapping combination (such as Baletite & Silotite). This system replaces the binding net with a wide width Balerfilm, that not only holds the bale together tighter than netting, but it also provides extra layers of protection. In combination with the baler film, the outer balewrap is applied to the bale in the opposite direction (cross wrapping), therefore giving the bale a better airtight seal.

Because haylage has a high DM content, it is important to avoid overheating the bale surface. It is therefore recommended to use a light coloured green or white balewrap to reflect the sun as opposed to a dark / black coloured film, which would absorb the suns heat - potentially leading to mould growth in the outer layers of the bale. A minimum of 6 layers of film needs to be applied to the bale. The barrel of a round bale forms 66% of the total surface and the first 13 cm represents 37% of the bale contents. This is why the extra film layers provided by the F&F system are proving ideal for round bales. Additional benefits of this system include reduced spoilage, longer storage periods, easier opening with no crop becoming enmeshed in the film and no need to separate the inner and outer film for recycling (both are made from the same base material).

Haylage Best for Cattle & Sheep-USA & Canadian Research

According to Anita O’Brien, Sheep and Goat Specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs “haylage offers producers a greater flexibility in harvesting their winter feed supply, the potential for improved quality in feed and less wastage from feeding.”

Baled haylage requires less drying time than conventional hay, so that during poor drying conditions, quality feed can still be made. Because of the higher moisture content in baled haylage, there is less leaf loss (5 to 12%) during harvesting than with dry hay (22 to 26%).

Since the protein content of the leaves is considerably higher than that of the stalks, less leaf loss means higher protein in the finished diet. With quality haylage, very little wastage occurs at feeding, since the stemmy material is now softer and more palatable than with dry hay.

USA Study compares Haylage vs. Hay

Haylage can have similar or improved quality compared to dry hay. To investigate the latter point, Darren Henry, Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Animal and Dairy Science at the University of Georgia, USA and a team of researchers conducted a study to evaluate the organic matter intake and total tract digestibility of nutrients of two types of feed in beef steers.

The study used 16 Angus steers and 14 Brangus steers with an average body weight of 244 kgs. These cattle were randomly assigned to ryegrass hay or  haylage — and both diets were fed ad lib.

The ryegrass hay in the experiment was 89.7% dry matter (DM), whereas the ryegrass haylage was 51.2% DM. Organic matter was roughly 90% for both feeds, and crude protein levels were 12.4% and 11.9% for hay and haylage, respectively.

Fibre content was also similar in the hay and haylage. Neutral detergent fibre was about 69% for hay and 68% for haylage. Moreover, acid detergent fibre was approx. 41% and 42% for hay and haylage, respectively. Overall, total digestible nutrients values were 56.9% for hay and 56.2% for haylage. Angus cattle had higher feed intakes than Brangus cattle, but there was no correlation between breed and nutrient digestibility.

The steers that received haylage consumed nearly 1.36 kgs more of feed/day than the steers that received dry hay.  According to Henry “DM and organic matter digestibility was 19% greater for haylage compared to hay. The digestibility of DM and organic matter was improved largely due to the 21% increase in total tract digestibility of neutral detergent fibre.”

These results contradict what researchers expected. “Very often, when an animal has greater DM intake, such as the steers consuming haylage, digestibility is consequently reduced,” “we found the opposite occurred for these steers”. He offered one explanation for this could be the “softening” of fibre in haylage due to fermentation. Another reason could be a shorter lag time of microbial attachment to fibre.

Danger of Soil Contamination

Soil and manure contamination can have negative impacts on forage intakes and production according to Stephen Gilkinson, a dairy technologist with the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). A sign of soil contamination is the presence of high levels of ash –over 10% in the forage. Normal ash levels in the plant should be around 6% to 8%, depending on the crop. Ideally, pre-cut dry NIR tests should be carried out to establish sugar levels, ash and nitrate content.

Soil is a good source of enterobacteria, clostridia and listeria, which increases the risk of a poor fermentation and can lead to animal and human health issues. Therefore, it is important to avoid soil contamination while mowing, tedding, raking and baling forage.

Risk of Farm Yard Fires from Hay

When harvested at a higher moisture level, a forage crop sometimes stays damp and respires well after baling. That continued respiration in the presence of oxygen creates conditions that can cause spontaneous combustion in bales.

Hay bales can catch fire due to a build-up of mould caused by moisture in the hay from time of baling or from being rained on. Hay naturally insulates, so once the hay reaches 55°C, a chemical reaction creates flammable gas. If the temperature of the hay continues to rise, the heat can cause the flammable gas to combust.

After hay is baled and stored at higher moisture levels, the fire risk from spontaneous combustion is greatest in the first two to six weeks. That risk continues if hay bales are stored where moisture can linger, like a barn with a leaky roof or in a high-humidity area.

Main Advantages of Haylage

  • Haylage is pretty much completely dust-free forage, so it’s perfect for animals that have respiratory problems.
  • It is more nutritious than hay, making it excellent for performance animals.
  • Haylage is much tastier, as most ruminants prefer the taste of it.
  • It is a lot easier on the stomach, as it is very easy to digest due to its higher moisture content
  • Haylage  can be stored outdoors due to its protective wrap
  • Reduced risk to human health from dust, spores and vapours in mouldy bales which can cause “very severe” respiratory illnesses such as farmers lung

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