Hay preservatives have pros and cons.

Whether to inoculate may be one of the forage grower’s top questions this spring.

A late spring not only complicates planting; it could overlay first-cut haying. Then, depending on the weather, continued wet conditions could complicate haying further. As a result, I anticipate more interest in the use of preservatives this year.

Most commonly, preservatives are used with alfalfa, which usually is wilted, with 15 percent or less moisture, prior to baling for hay. However, harvesting at low moistures increases the loss of leaves (protein) during baling and reduces nutritive value. In addition, long wilting times increase the risk for damage from rain. To retain more nutrients and prevent rain damage, hay can be baled at higher moistures, but the risk of spoilage from undesirable microbial metabolism during storage increases dramatically.

Although much is known about the microbiology of silage, less is known about microbial metabolism in moist hay. Although bacilli can be associated with spoilage of wet hay (greater than 20 percent moisture), most research suggests fungi are the microbes that cause spoilage problems in moist hay.

Moist hay undergoes several distinct heating cycles when stored in stacks. The significance of the heating peaks and associations with plant or microbial metabolism are poorly understood. However, if the moist hay does not undergo some heating, the bales never appear to "dry down" during storage. But excessive heating of the hay bale can lead to an increase in heat-damaged protein (acid detergent insoluble nitrogen). Heat-damaged protein lowers the protein value of the hay.

Various hay preservatives inhibit mold and may be useful in reducing drying time and field losses by allowing baling at higher moisture levels. If properly done, baling at higher moisture levels can reduce dry-matter loss (from leaf shattering) and potential damage from rain.

The two most commonly used preservatives for high-moisture hay are bacterial inoculants and propionic acid-based solutions.

For propionic acid to be effective, correct levels must be used. At least 1 percent propionic acid is needed to preserve hay with 32 percent moisture. Propionic acid solutions will vary from 10 to 100 percent propionic acid. I don’t recommend using very diluted products because larger volumes of water are applied to the crop. Why add more water to your already wet hay?

Depending on the product and application rate, treating with propionic acid-based products will cost $5 to $20 per ton of hay. Seldom does the increase in leaf retention pay for the use of the additive. However, acid preservation may be most beneficial when the producer is faced with potential loss from rain damage. Uniform distribution of propionic acid is important because "pocketing" of molds (only parts of the bale being moldy) has been observed. And, as you might surmise, acid products are corrosive to metal machinery.

Microbial inoculants can improve silage fermentation and animal performance. This success has created much interest in using microbial inoculants to reduce spoilage in moist hay. Advantages of an efficacious additive include lower cost, a lower liquid application rate and the use of a biologically safe (noncorrosive) product.

Inoculant success

The most important factor affecting the success of an inoculant is the size of the natural population of lactic acid bacteria on the crop: The higher the natural population, the less likely the inoculant will succeed. In alfalfa, the natural population varies with wilting conditions. The natural population is increased by higher average wilting temperatures, longer wilting times, rainfall during wilting and higher moisture contents at chopping. Consequently, these conditions, rather than cutting, are important for determining the best time to use an inoculant on hay-crop silage.

Under typical conditions, the profitability of an inoculant will be more variable in the first cutting than in subsequent cuttings. This is true because we typically have longer wilting times and a greater likelihood of rainfall during wilting in the first cutting, which reduce the chances for an inoculant to succeed. However, do not assume that using an inoculant in the first cutting is unprofitable.

Inoculants may contain one or more strains of lactic acid bacteria. The most common is Lactobacillus plantarum. Other Lactobacillus or Pediococcus species may be present; Enterococcus faecium also is common. Rarely, a Bacillus species may be present to improve bunk stability. Be skeptical of products that contain other species.

Comparing inoculants is difficult, but here are some things to do when purchasing a product:

  • Look for a product that guarantees to supply at least 90 billion live lactic acid bacteria per ton of crop.
  • Be sure to buy a product that is labeled for the crop you are going to ensile.
  • Ask for research, particularly independent research data, to back up the product manufacturer’s claims.
  • Once you have purchased a product, be sure to store and use it according to directions.

Costs vary by products and the volume you buy. The typical cost is $1 per treated ton of crop, but it can range from 60 cents to more than $2 per ton.

An inoculant should work well at any of the recommended moisture contents (between 45 and 70 percent moisture) for the various silo types. However, fewer types of naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria will be able to grow well under drier conditions. This suggests that inoculants should be successful more frequently in drier crops.

Can inoculants increase milk production in the dairy cow?

Increases in animal performance have been observed more often than increases in intake. A survey of inoculant studies in all silage crops found milk production improved in about half of the studies. In those studies where milk yield was improved, the average increase was 3 pounds per cow per day.

Are forage inoculants cost-effective?

When appropriate inoculants are applied to ensiled forages, they are cost-effective. Several factors influence the degree of response from inoculants, but on average, net returns increase when inoculants are used on silages.

At present, responses to hay inoculants are quite variable. Additional research and development is necessary before hay inoculants offer the degree of economic benefit noted for silage inoculants.