The author is a managing partner in Elite Ag LLC, Leesburg, Ga. He also is active in the family farm in Rutledge.

Hay season is winding down for most of us, and all of this year’s crop, or lack thereof in some cases, is in the barn. It was usually about this time of year when my dad and I would start to look back at the previous haying season and discuss what we could have done differently or better.

I recall one winter about 12 years ago when we found ourselves feeding the cows a bunch of rained-on hay. We had discussed putting up baleage before, but the challenging weather conditions that particular year pushed us that way in a hurry. Once we made the baleage decision, that led to a multitude of questions, with few people to get reliable, practical answers from at the time. One of our first questions is still the most popular question I get today from my friends and customers: What type of wrapper works best?

In the early 2000s, we really only had two viable options: the inline or “tube” wrapper and the individual bale wrapper. Now some progressive manufacturers have added a third option to the mix and that is the baler-wrapper combination. All three of these options have their place in the industry today.

Still practical

The individual bale wrapper comes in several different styles and has the longest tenure. When first introduced, it was usually mounted to a tractor at a central location and was loaded and unloaded by a separate piece of equipment. If most of your hay is fed in one area, the stationary wrapper is still very practical and the least expensive of all the options. The only extra piece of equipment you will need is a squeeze to put on your existing loader for moving bales once they are wrapped.

There are also self-loading and self-unloading individual wrappers. These are usually pulled behind tractors in the field and wrap the bales as soon as they come out of the baler. This works really well for getting the bales wrapped as quickly as possible. Then the bales can be moved out of the field and stacked at the edges or hauled to a central location. The downside is that you still need to purchase a squeeze for your loader, and hauling gives you the chance to tear the plastic and create a place for spoilage.

Individual bale wrappers use the most plastic. Plastic can cost upward of $6 to $8 per bale, depending on the size of your bale, and a new wrapper itself can cost between $15,000 and $25,000. When made correctly, individually wrapped bales are usually dense, exclude oxygen, and have the least amount of time between being baled and wrapped.

In my opinion, if you are a smaller operation wrapping 500 or so bales per year, the individual wrapper could be the best fit. Or, if you sell your baleage and need to haul it longer distances, the individual wrappers are better suited as well.

New kid on the block

The relatively new baler-wrapper combinations are currently being offered by three manufacturers in the U.S., though I do think there will be more options in the future. When I talk to farmers, one major concern for their operation in the future is labor. This is why I anticipate an uptick in the number of baler-wrappers sold. These combination balers can cost in the range of $90,000 to $110,000, which seems like a lot of money. I would challenge that, when you add up the cost of an equally equipped baler, additional wrapper, plus tractor and people to operate the wrapper, you can get to $100,000 quickly.

One person can bale and wrap the hay all in one pass with a combo baler. The wrappers on these balers can be turned off when dry hay is harvested. As with all individual wrappers, there is the need for additional bale handling equipment. Most current users cite time savings as a big benefit.

Plan for storage space

The third option and probably the most popular across the country is the inline wrapper. There are numerous manufacturers of tube wrappers, and all bring something unique to the table. The main advantage for these wrappers is speed. Most of the inline wrappers can wrap upward of 60 or more bales per hour, depending on the amount of plastic applied. They also use the least amount of plastic of the three options that we have discussed.

A tube wrapper will cost around $30,000. One drawback lies in the amount of space needed to put a tube. It can also be challenging to get hay from the field to the wrapper in a timely manner if you are not wrapping at the edge of the same field. But, if high production is what you are looking for and you have room to make tubes that can exceed 100 bales or so, then the tube wrapper may be the way to go.

For our family’s operation, we looked at all three options but settled with a tube wrapper because it best suited our goals. Since the start of our baleage adventure, we have now wrapped over 80,000 bales and helped a few other people get started with baleage as well.

Putting up baleage is a whole different ball game, but one that changed our farming operation forever. Our cows and our customers’ cows thank us every day!

This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 20.

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