Making hay during the winter is difficult because the drying period may become excessive. If during the drying period it rains, the entire cutting might be lost. Rather than taking the risk of hay-making during the winter, some growers pasture alfalfa fields with sheep during the winter. There is another option, silage. Alfalfa silage is prized by dairy producers because cows relish silage. On a dry matter basis, cows usually eat more silage than a comparable amount of hay.
One of the golden rules in livestock production is: the more an animal eats, the more it produces. Over time stored hay decreases in feeding value. However, silage nutritive value may be conserved over a much longer period (years). There are several market production problems with alfalfa silage production. Since silage is about 65 percent water, transporting water by truck is expensive. The ensiling process has innate inefficiencies. Silage dry matter losses may range from 20 percent to 30 percent in bunker silos to 10 percent to 20 percent in silage bags. Another problem for a producer is properly pricing the alfalfa silage; how do you sell standing water?
I propose the following procedure for a producer to price alfalfa silage. Assume the following for next February: Hay price – $210/ton for premium hay, baled hay has 16 percent moisture, a hay yield of 1 ton/acre, baling losses of 15 percent of potential dry matter yield, lush and green alfalfa in the field is about 80 percent water; $35/ton for baling, raking and stacking; a 12 percent silage loss from silage bags; and costs for plastic bags for silage and freight are borne by dairyman.
• 2000 lb/acre (hay yield) * 0.84 dry matter (bale dry matter) = 1680 lb/acre dry matter yield
• 1680 lb/acre ÷ 0.85 (baling loss adjustment) = 1976 lb/acre of potentially available dry matter harvested by the silage process (when you make silage you harvest all potentially produced dry matter rather than the normal loss of 15 percent during baling, that is why you divide)
• 1976 lb/acre ÷ 0.35 (dry matter in silage) = 5646 lb/acre of potential silage yield
• 5646 lb/acre ÷ 2000 lb/ton = 2.8 ton/acre potential silage yield
• 2.8 t/a * 0.88 (silage loss) = 2.5 t/a net silage production
• $210/ton (hay price) - $35/acre (baling costs) = $175/ton (net price per ton of hay without baling costs)
• 1 ton/acre hay yield * $175/ton = $175/acre gross returns
• $175/acre (gross returns) ÷ 2.5 ton/acre (silage production) = $70/ton breakeven silage price
Under these conditions the grower must receive $70/ton of silage to make silage-making comparable to hay production. If any part of the transaction, such as the cost of the plastic bags or freight charges change, then silage production will not be comparable to hay production. While alfalfa silage is highly prized by the dairyman, for the alfalfa producer silage production is just another marketing medium with its own particular positives and negatives.