May 13, 2012

Farmers gearing up for busy spring

For the local dairy farmers who depend on the quality of their crops to make milk, hay harvesting nowadays is usually done by making haylage.

Haylage is hay that is mowed and harvested while still at a high enough moisture content to support fermentation. It can be chopped and ensiled in silos, bunks or ag bags; or can be baled into large round bales that are wrapped in plastic or stuffed into giant tubes.

The purpose of the silos or plastic tubing is to exclude all air from the forage to allow for fermentation. A certain type of organism, the Lactobacillus bacteria, converts the carbohydrates in the plants into lactic acid. They continue to produce lactic acid and lower the pH of the forage until they can no longer function. At this point, the hay is fermented and can be stored for quite some time without loss of quality.

Making haylage has several benefits. One of the major advantages is that the crop can be harvested when it is ready during almost any weather conditions. In order to harvest high-quality forage, it must be cut early in the spring to maximize the protein, digestibility and palatability of the feed.

In the past, when harvesting dry hay, farmers needed to wait for three or four days of hot and sunny weather to cure the hay. Now farmers can cut and harvest their hay crop in 24 to 36 hours or less. Local farmers usually hope to start the harvest in mid-May when forage quality is at its peak. By harvesting the first cutting early and quickly, subsequent cuttings can be taken at regular intervals throughout the summer.

Harvesting forage as haylage also has the benefit of reducing labor by allowing farmers to utilize more mechanization. Silage is chopped into large wagons or trucks and stored in silos, ag bags, the long white tubes seen on many farms, or more commonly piled and packed into bunk silos or mounds.

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