bales of hay

Livestock producers who are considering wrapping bales have a number of questions to ponder. The first: Why think about wrapping bales at all?

For haylage production, if there are no silos available, wrapping bales is a less expensive alternative for making a 15 to 20 percent protein forage feed. “If you are wrapping dry hay, it will improve the forage’s digestibility,” says Marvin Hall, professor of forage management at Penn State University.

However, there is a caveat. Once the alfalfa or grass is cut, wrapping bales won’t improve the quality of the forage that the animals eventually eat, Hall says. “This is definitely a case of garbage in, garbage out. If forage quality is poor to start with, wrapping it in plastic will not improve its quality.”

Still, the cost of single-bale wrappers and inline systems (bale wrappers that wrap forage in a single long wrap) will save the cost of silo construction. Of course, this has to be balanced against the risk of not having a solid structure to protect the integrity of the fermentation process.

With either wrapping system, forages are encased in heavy plastic instead of cement-stave or metal structures. This means any punctures, whether caused by handling or wildlife, will reduce the efficiency of the fermentation process that produces quality feed.

There are steps farmers can take to reduce this risk. Recent research suggests that farmers should wrap bales with light-colored plastic rather than darker colors.

“Farmers who use darker plastic will see it break down more quickly than those who use lighter-colored material. The darker plastic breaks down faster in the summer heat and sun, making it more permeable to oxygen and limiting the fermentation process,” Hall explains.

How well the bale is wrapped will make a difference. Hall has seen research suggesting that the best seal is achieved with six wraps per bale.

Fermenting feed

The best candidates for wrapped haylage are first and fall cuttings. When making plastic-wrapped haylage, the win-or-die breaking point on preserving forage quality is a producer’s willingness and ability to wrap bales the same day hay is harvested.

Carbohydrates in forages increase from the moment of cutting throughout the day and peak at sunset. “Baling one day and wrapping it the next leads to a loss of carbohydrates, which are needed to feed the bacteria that bring about fermentation,” says Hall.

In the first phase of fermentation, oxygen feeds both mold growth and the acetic acid-producing bacteria. That’s why wrapping immediately after harvest is a good idea. The plant cells are producing heat, which is an ideal situation for molds to start growing.

If wrapped quickly, that heat burns up the oxygen, which clears the way for the lactobacillus bacteria in the forage to begin the fermentation process. The faster that occurs, the faster the lactobacillus bacteria can get down to the important job of creating lactic acid during what is called the anaerobic stage.

If all is working as it should be, the pH and the temperature of the silage drop in this phase. “In properly fermented silage, more than 70 percent of the acids will be lactic acid,” notes Hall.

Fermentation takes from 9 to 15 percent of the forage’s dry matter, which translates into protein loss. That’s why it’s important that what is wrapped is of the highest quality.

Hall says, “If protein is at 12 percent when harvested, whatever comes out of the wrap will be less than 12 percent.”

Biological boosters

Forage scientists discovered that there are two kinds of lactobacillus bacteria present during fermentation. They are called homofermenters and heterofermenters.

Homofermenters convert one molecule of glucose (plant sugar) into two molecules of lactic acid. “Lactic acid lowers the pH of forages and begins the fermenting process,” says Hall.

Heterofermenters convert one molecule of glucose into one molecule of lactic acid and some carbon dioxide. “So when it comes to fermenting, the homofermenters are much more efficient,” he adds.

There are a number of silage additives called homofermenter inoculants on the market. Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown that these products, though not 100 percent effective, tend to work better on haylage than corn silage.

What do they deliver? They cut dry matter loss with varying degrees of effectiveness, depending on the product used. Whether that means higher rates of gain or milk production is a question that can only be answered with further study.

Dry hay

As part of a 2010 study, Gordon Groover, associate professor and extension economist at Virginia Tech, estimated wrapping costs. Those costs are offset by huge reductions of harvest and storage losses.

For example, it can be a real feed saver when alfalfa is harvested during or immediately prior to rain. Tedding alfalfa leads to leaf shatter, and leaf shatter means protein loss.

“Harvest losses in dry hay can range from 15 percent to 45 percent,” says Groover.

He thinks bale wrapping makes more sense for the milking string than for brood cows.

“Wouldn’t you be better off grazing or reducing stocking rates rather than making an investment like this?” he asks. “Do you really need that kind of quality forage for them?”

High-quality feed is more important to growing stock, like feeder cattle, making the investment a more worthy consideration. “That is a completely different question than maintenance,” Groover emphasizes.

Farmers who are increasing herd size and need a constant rate of gain or milk production might look at bale wrapping as a consistent source of quality feed. “Investing in bale wrapping is not a lot more expensive than building a shed for dry hay storage,” Groover says.

On the flip side, once the weather gets cold, grazing options for farms in the Northeast blow away with the onset of snow. Wrapped bales mean plenty of forage available for feeding over the winter.

The investment also makes sense when taking hay from rented land where there is no storage available. “Bales left on the ground lose quality over time, but wrapping bales preserves their quality longer,” Groover says.

Feeding the beasts

Groover says it’s also important to consider whether the farm’s existing equipment can handle the necessary power and accessory requirements, or if it will be necessary to invest in additional equipment. He says, “Farmers with fewer resources might think about using custom operators to get the job done.”

Small tractors may not have the necessary muscle. “Single-bale wrapping requires an 80 hp tractor to efficiently and safely move the wet bales, and possibly a second 55 to 60 hp tractor to use as a power unit,” he says.

Many inline wrappers come equipped with their own power units, eliminating the need for a second tractor.

Moving bales also requires tong-style bale grabbers. “You can’t use a bale spear on sealed bales,” Groover points out.

There are some hidden charges as well, since producers must also consider how they will deal with postharvest storage. If there is no structural storage available, gravel pads may be necessary to get the wrapped bales off the ground.

Single-bale wrappers cost less than inline systems, but they require more wrapping time and plastic film per bale. Some of the inline systems require end caps or plastic hay bags to seal the ends of the lines.

Wrapping bales can be an economical answer when quality counts, when haying on rented properties, and when silos are not available. Just be sure to include all of the factors when pushing that pencil.

Beef: Writing a Standard Operating Procedure for Calving

cow with calves

The Beef Checkoff Program has funded the National Beef Quality Audit since 1991. These audits are conducted approximately every five years, with separate audits conducted on fed cattle and market (cull) cows and bulls. The audits provide the industry with a set of benchmarks and measurements relative to the quality of the U.S. beef supply.

In the most recent audit of the fed cattle segment (http://bqa.org/audit.aspx), a nationwide survey was conducted specifically to assess Beef Quality Assurance-related production and management practices adopted by the seed stock, cow/calf and stocker sectors. The results of this survey found that: “Though 95 percent had some level of routine vaccination and treatment protocols, only 31 percent had a written plan. Greater emphasis must be placed on documentation.”

With calving season in full swing, I thought it would be useful to discuss what level of documentation should be implemented on beef farms.

The standard operating procedure (SOP) is a document used to provide guidance on specific and routine tasks for those involved in performing those tasks. A quick Internet search shows that SOPs are extremely common in medical, industrial and nonprofit industries. In animal production, the purpose of an SOP is to ensure food safety, animal welfare and farm sustainability.

Established SOPs are used to:

1. Tell what, how, when, why and who.

2. Ensure consistency in practices and that they are done on a prescribed schedule.

3. Ensure worker safety.

4. Serve as a training document.

5. Serve as a historical record of changes that have occurred.

Development of an SOP should be done by all those involved with the farm operation, including family and paid labor. It should be written much as you would a recipe. Think about the specific operations that occur and in what order they occur. Your goal is an SOP that ensures the procedures are done the same way every time. Once written, your veterinarian should review it. The final version should be kept in a location that’s readily accessible to those who will be performing the tasks.

Tasks that should be developed into SOPs include but are not limited to: routine vaccinations; treatment for pinkeye, foot rot and respiratory disease; biosecurity for herd additions; and euthanasia.

The Cornell University Pro-Dairy Program has published a template for writing an SOP; it’s available at http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/pdfs/sop.pdf. Your veterinarian may also have one available.

Below is an example of a calving SOP developed for the Beef Unit at the Cornell Ruminant Center (formerly Cornell T&R). It is not intended to be used on your farm, as it is specific to Cornell conditions.

Writing an SOP is your commitment to providing a safe, wholesome product while assuring that you are using the best animal husbandry practices available.

A successful beef cattle calving season requires careful attention to cows before, during and after the birth. Cover Photo by Kim Stockwell-Morrison.

image of a sop

Managing the Livestock Guardian Dog in Winter

guardian dog with a flock of sheep in the snow

Most livestock guardian dog breeds develop a heavy coat prior to winter. This coat is adequate protection from winter weather as long as it’s free of mats and burrs.

Ask 10 people who use livestock guardian dogs (LGD) how they manage their dogs in winter and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. Some dogs remain out on pasture with livestock throughout the cold months, while some are moved with their livestock to a more confined area that often includes access to a barn.

The breeds most often used as guardians have been developed over centuries in countries where winters are harsh, in some cases far more severe than in the Northeast. Long-coated breeds, including Great Pyrenees, Maremma, Kuvasz, Akbash and Caucasian Ovcharka, have dense, water-repellent coats. Some of these breeds have a double coat – a long outer coat that sheds water, and a shorter, soft undercoat that provides warmth. Although the Anatolian shepherd has a shorter coat, the breed does fine in winter as long as the dog has had a chance to acclimate throughout the year.

It’s important for the dog to go into the cold season with a healthy, brushed-out coat of hair. The dog’s winter coat can trap warmth produced by the body, and in extreme cold, tiny muscles help raise each hair to create even more potential for warmth. However, if the coat is matted or full of burrs, the hairs are essentially flattened and pulled together, which exposes skin and makes it more difficult for the dog to maintain warmth.

If the dog’s coat has become muddy or wet, it’s important that the dog have access to a dry place until the coat is dry. Although the coats of most LGD breeds are smooth and somewhat dirt-repellent, it’s important to brush any dried mud out of the coat in order to maintain the natural insulating properties.

Winter air is dry, so it’s necessary to check paws for cracks. Cracks are uncomfortable and if left untreated can lead to deeper, more serious cracking. Although some extra nail length may help the dog gain traction on icy surfaces, don’t allow the nails to become overgrown. Keep an eye on the nails of double dewclaws, which can easily grow into the foot if not trimmed regularly.

There’s often higher predator pressure in winter, which means dogs might be working harder and burning more calories. As a result, they may require feed with higher energy and/or fat.

If the dog is young, old or has trouble maintaining weight, consult your veterinarian about adjusting your dog’s diet for winter. Be sure to make dietary changes slowly.

Although it isn’t necessary to check the dog’s body condition daily, it’s a good idea to monitor dogs, especially young and old dogs, for condition throughout the cold months. By the time winter weather arrives, the dog’s coat is at its fullest, and it may be difficult to determine the body condition visually. To check it, place your thumb along the spine and extend your fingers downward toward the ribs. The ribs should be easily felt, but without deep spaces in between.

The appropriate shelter for guardian dogs in winter varies depending on the farm situation. Like the livestock they’re protecting, dogs instinctively know how to stay warm and will seek shelter in harsh weather. Dogs can remain comfortable when temperatures drop as long as they have protection from wind. In cases where livestock are on pasture throughout the winter, dogs will tend to seek shelter with the stock in hedgerows or other natural windbreaks. When round bales are fed, dogs will often use the bale as a windbreak, even if other shelter is provided.

Some producers provide a calf hutch or large doghouse, but in many cases the dog will prefer to be out with the livestock. You should be able to move dog-specific housing such as a doghouse or calf hutch so it faces away from prevailing winds.

Water is as important for dogs in winter as it is in summer. If your dog drinks from a large stock tank in which an electric water heater is being used, make sure the dog (and stock) isn’t receiving a shock when drinking. It doesn’t take much stray voltage to deter an animal from drinking. Heated buckets are another cold-weather option.

If the dog is older and arthritic, cold weather may make it more uncomfortable. The guardian breeds are stoic and often don’t show signs of pain. To make sure older dogs are comfortable, provide the option of a soft bed – perhaps a calf hutch mounted on a solid base filled with discarded wool. If you’re concerned about arthritis, talk with your veterinarian about the best way to manage your dog’s situation.

The last consideration for cold weather is: How does this look? People who drive through rural areas and see livestock guardian dogs outside year-round are often concerned about the dogs’ well-being in harsh weather. Although you know that your dog has generations of genetic strength to endure tough weather, it’s important for people to see that the dog has options for shelter. The last thing you want to deal with is a humane complaint in the middle of winter.