Why we built a baleage dryer

By Nathan Weaver
First in a series

The seed for a mechanical hay drier was planted in my mind by an article in the May 2010 issue of Graze. On a visit to northern France, Joel McNair had talked with Jean-Luc Gaugain about his system for drying loose hay.

Jean-Luc’s system captured solar energy from air heated inside the black, steel roof and walls of his barn. This heated air was forced through loose hay to finish the drying process of forages that had been harvested at 30-35% moisture.

I love dry hay for a variety of reasons, but we can’t rely on it because we live in a place where it is very difficult to make dry hay. To capture winter feed at near optimum quality, we often have no choice but to harvest the crop as baleage or silage.

Over the years we have probably made our forage as baleage at least 80% of the time. Most times the dry round bales we made had dusty cores when fed.

We also did not like to see mowed hay left in the field for more than one night before being baled. A lot of nutrients get lost during those second and third nights of re-wetting when you’re trying to field-dry hay.

The years passed, and on occasion my son and I would dig out that 2010 article and try to brainstorm a way to apply such a system to our farm. We always ran up against the same issue: Our farm is simply not set up to utilize loose hay.

We could not come to terms with the space required to store, handle and feed loose hay. Loose hay simply did not fit into a farmstead built around the round bale system.

But over the past two years we have developed a system that shows signs of working to dry round bales harvested at up to 40% moisture.

In coming issues of Graze I will describe our system — first the prototype we experimented with in 2019, and then a much-larger effort we used with some success last year for much of our hay crop.

In this article, I want to tell you why we are interested in dry hay. Why not just stick with baleage? Here are some reasons for our interest and what we hope to accomplish.

We want to save money on stored feed.
Currently a neighbor is paid $6.00 per bale to custom-wrap our baleage with a tube line wrapper. I do not begrudge him this fee, as the cost of plastic, equipment and time justifies it.

Then we pay another 50 cents per bale to dispose of the plastic as we feed the baleage. From what we’ve seen so far, a bale-drying system can be cost competitive.

We want better feed for our 100% grassfed cows.
Compared to wet bales, dry hay is a better companion feed for pastured cows. A rumen mat of high-quality dry hay is better than one from baleage during the transition seasons of spring and fall when the pastures are too high in protein and too low in fiber. Overly high moisture in forages will limit dry matter intake at these times.

Based on our experience, feeding entirely baleage to the herd during the non-pasture season results in poor forage utilization. We see loose manure and even scouring in the cows when they’re consuming forages at protein levels where this should not be happening. MUN readings can be under 12, but still the herd is squirting too-thin manure.

Many grassfed producers complain about the amount of winter feed required to get their herds through the winter. I strongly suspect that an all-wet, fermented forage diet makes for poor feed utilization.

In having dry hay be a considerable portion of their diet, we hope to promote slower feed passage through the cows. This in turn should help with utilization, which would reduce consumption considerably and help with the scouring issues.

Then, too, energy is always a limiting factor in 100% grassfed production. Winter consumption of wet, cold and frozen feed will drain the cow’s energy as she tries to maintain a body temperature equilibrium. New Zealand studies show that dry hay has a distinct advantage over wet, cold silage due to this reason alone.

We detest the rampant use of plastic and the mess created by outdoor hay storage.
Plastics in the environment are getting a lot of negative press, so I think that we farmers who are looking to create a clean, green and regenerative image should use as little plastic as possible. We are placing our long tubes and piles of hay wreathed in white plastic in full sight of plastic-averse consumers.

Another factor here is aesthetics. We find it difficult to keep a tidy farmstead while dealing with baleage. Inevitably these areas feature mud, plastic fragments, ruts and twine litter. The machinery transporting this feed brings this mess to the barns and laneways.

We would like a better feed inventory.
Ideally, baleage should be fed within 12 months of harvest, as after that the plastic tends to deteriorate. And compared to dry hay, baleage will lose its vitamin content faster.

Having a good supply of dry hay on hand gives you the ability to stash away feed in the good years as insurance against drought and other adverse growing seasons.

We want to protect our meat and milk from off-flavors and other problems that could damage grassfed sales.
This is perhaps the most important reason why we would like to feed a higher percentage of dry hay. Grassfed products have the potential to be the best-tasting beef and dairy on the market. They can also be the worst.

The beef side has been well documented, and for years off-tastes and other quality problems hurt consumer acceptance. While the grassfed beef sector is generally producing a better product, even today perhaps only 10% of finishers have the skills needed to consistently produce high-quality, 100% grassfed beef.

Based on my unofficial assessment, perhaps 50% of grassfed beef qualifies as acceptable, with only 10% being fantastic. The remainder needs work.

Up to now, the taste characteristics of 100% grassfed dairy have been mostly out of the conversation. We ignore this issue at great risk to the acceptance of our products.

On our farm, the off-tastes come about almost exclusively when the cows are consuming wet baleage for most of their forage. On rare occasions there is a “grassy” taste to the milk in early spring when the herd is grazing lush, initial-growth pasture.

Both of these problems can be mitigated by dry hay.

Good cheesemakers want little to do with milk from cows on fermented feed. With no grain in the diet, we need to be extra careful to avoid off-flavors in milk sent to cheese vats.

In contrast, dry hay is lauded by good cheesemakers the world over as the forage of choice for cows — in some cases even being chosen over our beloved pastures.

I have in front of me the early results of taste and aroma studies of 100% grassfed milk that were conducted by the University of Vermont (see article on next page).

Looking at the early results from the various seasons, I am wondering if the variances seen in taste and aroma are due to baleage being most of the diet for 100% grassfed herds during the non-pasture months.

We see dry hay as being crucial to maintaining a great-tasting milk during the off-pasture season.

Nathan and Kristine Weaver and their family milk cows near Canastota, NY.