Feeding baleage to small ruminants

Baleage offers a low cost, high quality forage option for sheep and goats but care must be taken to reduce health risks.

Baleage bagged up in a field
Baleage for sale can be found throughout Michigan. Photo by Mike Metzger, MSU Extension.

Many small ruminant producers are looking for ways to reduce feed costs for their herd or flock. Hay prices in Michigan are high after the extremely wet spring followed by a hot, dry summer. As owners look to reduce their forage costs, baled silage or “baleage” is one possible choice, but there are several things to consider when evaluating this choice.

Baleage is a form of silage that is made from large round bales that have been baled wet and stored covered with airtight stretch-wrap plastic. Baleage requires less drying time than conventionally baled hay and thus can be made under poor drying conditions. This can allow the crop to be cut at the optimal time for quality, whereas dry hay harvest requires a three- to four-day period of dry weather which often delays harvest creating an overly mature and a poorer quality stored forage product. There is also less leaf loss at baling and during feeding when compared to dry hay.

Baleage forage is softer and often times more palatable to livestock. Balage is typically harvested at 40-60% dry matter, while dry hay is often 85% or more dry matter. Baleage can be fed like hay, but needs to be used within about five days after unwrapping the bale (three to four days in warm weather and six to seven days in winter) in order to prevent spoilage. This means that there is a minimum herd size for feeding baleage, approximately 25-30 ewes or 40-50 does for a typical 4-by-4 foot bale. 

Baleage can pose a health risk due to Listeriosis or “circling disease” in sheep and goats.  Sheep and goats are especially susceptible to listeriosis compared to cattle. The bacteria that cause listeriosis is naturally present in the soil and thrives in silage under cold and moist conditions in the presence of oxygen.  Therefore carefully wrapped, stored and prepared baleage greatly minimizes listeriosis risk whereas a poor fermentation or damage to the plastic covering greatly increases risk.

When making baleage, the forage must be cut at the right time to insure there are enough fermentable carbohydrates to ensure a good fermentation. Bales must be tight, dense bales to exclude as much oxygen as possible. They must be baled at the correct moisture as forages that are too wet (above 70% moisture) and forages that are too dry (below 30%) will not properly ferment.

It is important that the bales be wrapped tight in plastic to exclude oxygen and allowed to ferment for six to eight weeks. The integrity of the plastic wrap must be maintained throughout storage. Bales must be moved using equipment that does not puncture the plastic wrap and any holes caused by moving bales or other causes (claws, bites, punctures, etc.) must be prevented or sealed quickly. Michigan State University Extension recommends that when unwrapping a bale to feed, inspect the bale for mold and remove any questionable material before feeding.

Feeding baleage can improve forage quality while reducing feed cost for sheep and goat farms, but care must be taken to minimize the risk of listeriosis.   

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