Utilizing Alternative Methods for Silage Harvest and Storage

Final Report for FNC98-240

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


My wife Lynda and I operate a 300 acres dairy farm near Coleman, Michigan. We milk 40 head of Holstein, Jersey and Jersey-cross cows. The herd is bred to milk seasonally from March through December. Our farm’s goal is to synchronize milk production with pasture growth, thereby maximizing lowest cost of production to achieve maximum profitability. Our land base consists of 120 acres of intensively grazed pasture and 150 acres of hay.

We had 270 acres of grass to harvest and to maintain in a timely manner, 150 acres of hay and 120 acres of pasture for rotational grazing. Even with the reduced work load of intensive grazing, there still wasn’t enough time for one person to harvest this many acres in a timely manner. This resulted in lower quality hay and lower yields because of delayed harvests. We literally harvested hay, non stop, from June to September, (or later) and sometimes were not able to finish because of shorter days and poor weather in the fall.

Our farm has previously stored feed in concrete upright silos. This required a trip across the field to mow, a trip to chop, and a second person to haul wagons to the silo. While this reduced the weather risk, it also resulted in a much higher investment in harvesting and feeding equipment. In addition, the equipment sat idle most of the year. We tried baling round bales. While only requiring one person, this method was time consuming and frustrating as it took four trips across the field and also required at least two to three days of good weather (per field) in order to put up quality feed. Equipment repairs and down time were also a factor with the pieces of used equipment. With a herd expansion in the near future, and our farm being primarily operated by one person, it I necessary to find an efficient and cost effective way to harvest and store our winter feed supply.

The objective of this project was to research a lower cost method of harvesting and storing silage in order to reduce capital investment of harvesting and feeding equipment on the family farm. The reason behind this is that substantial capital investment is typically required for family farms with livestock operations. Often times, a substantial percentage of the farm’s capital investment is tied up in equipment that sets idle a large percentage of the time. For example a hay baler, forage chopper, mower/conditioner, and chopper wagons are used only a few days at a time and remain idle for the remainder of the year. Liability is created with repairs, maintenance, depreciation, and missed opportunity costs.

With the NCRSARE grant we were able to explore an alternative method of harvesting forages that would provide a lower capital investment, considerably less time harvesting and a wider range of field applications. This paper will:
- Explain the equipment used in the research
- Explain the process of direct cut vacuum silage making
- Compare capital investment of vacuum silage equipment with: traditional silage equipment, round baling equipment, and round bale silage equipment
- Compare the storage cost of vacuum silage with: traditional silage, round baled hay, and round bale silage
- Compare the operational costs of vacuum silage with: traditional silage making, dry round baling, and round bale silage making
- Explain the benefits it provides for the farm and operator
- Explain how we have shared our findings with other farmers
- Summarize results.

Equipment Utilized: Lacerator and Multi-Purpose Wagon:
Through the use of technology developed in New Zealand and now available in the United States, low cost harvesting equipment is utilized to direct cut feed crops and ensile them. The silage may be stored at convenient locations such as in the fields to reduce transportation and storage costs. The equipment used in this study was the New Zealand style Lacerator and a multi-purpose silage wagon. The Lacerator is a multi-use, flail-type chopper that can harvest any forage crop standing or windrowed (including standing corn). The Lacerator may be used for a variety of field operations such as: mowing hay, green chopping, harvesting forage crops for silage, and clipping pastures.

The multi-purpose wagon is a trailer-type forage wagon that tows behind the Lacerator. It is capable of unloading silage out the front or back, and can also unroll and feed out round bales. Both pieces of equipment may be purchased at a fraction of the cost of conventional forage harvesting equipment, thus reducing machinery investment overhead for the family farm.

The Direct-Cut Vacuum Silage Process:
The direct cut process begins with a 70 hp or larger tractor. The Lacerator is available to pull type or a three point hitch version, and trails directly behind the tractor. The multi-purpose wagon is then connected behind the Lacerator. As the tractor drives across the field, the Lacerator direct cuts the forage and blows it into the wagon. A perforated pipe is placed on the ground where the stack is to be located. Once the wagon is full the load is then emptied on top of the pipe. The process continues until the stack is the desired size. This process is performed without leaving the tractor seat (no unhooking of the wagon is necessary).

Although the stack is usually pushed together with a loader, it does not need to be packed. The stack is then covered with a white 5 ml or 6 ml plastic and then sand or dirt is placed around the edges of the plastic to help create a seal. A vacuum pump is then connected to the pipe and the oxygen is removed from the silage stack. After a few minutes of vacuuming the pump is turned off, the pipe is sealed, and the silage is allowed to ferment until its desired use. This process can be done with any forage (small grains, grass, sorghum, corn, etc.) and only required one pass over the field. Thus, harvesting is accomplished in a much shorter time frame and only requires one person to do so.

Compare Capital Investment:
A cost comparison of the capital investment of other conventional forage harvesting systems and the direct cut vacuum silage system was done. A fair comparison would be in new equipment only. However, we were so struck by the affordability of the vacuum silage system, we included used equipment, when possible, as part of the comparison as well. Figures for new equipment were taken form the Doan’s Agricultural Reports, June 1999. Figures for the used equipment were obtained by averaging local dealer prices.

Traditional Silage Equipment (Upright Silo):
New, Used
Chopper, $24,400, $7,868
Blower, $5,400, $1,188
Mower Conditioner 9’, $13,400, $6,100
2 Chopper Wagons, $24,200, $9,100
Total, $67,400, $24,256

Round Bale Silage System:
New, Used – Not Applicable
Mower Conditioner 9’, $13,400
Silage Baler, $20,800
2 Wagons, $6,400
Line Wrapper, $17,900
Total, $58,500

The used category for round bale silage was not applicable. This category was impossible to define cost wise because used equipment is not available for the silage baler on the line wrapper due to the newness of this technology.

Dry Round Bale System:
New, Used
Mower Conditioner, $13,400, $6,100
Rake, $5,400, $2,616
Baler, $18,000, $6,550
2 Wagons, $6,400, $2,032
Total, $43,200, $17,298

Direct Cut Vacuum Silage System:
New, Used – Not Applicable – used equipment is not currently available
Lacerator, $7,742
Multi-Purpose Wagon, $12,440
Vacuum Pump, $1,000
Total, $21,182

Compare Storage Costs:
A cost comparison of the storage costs of other conventional forage harvesting systems and the direct cut vacuum silage system was done. The costs of storing feed in indicated in the following chart.

Concrete Silo:
16’x60’ Concrete Stave Silo, $24,500
Taxes @ $20/year x 20 years, $400
Interest, $12,750
Repairs @ $50/year x 20 years, $1,000
Electricity @ $20/month x 20 years, $2,400
Total, $41,050

$41,050/20 years = $2,052.50/72.8 tons dry matter capacity = $28.19 per ton of dry matter

The capacity for a 16’x60’ silo is 208 tons of 65% moisture silage. For the purpose of this paper we will convert all figures to dry matter for an equal comparison. Thus, 208 wet tons converts to 72.8 tons of dry matter (208x0.35)

Round Bale Silage:
The dealer estimates $1.60/bale for line wrapped hay. A 2,000 pound silage bale at 65% moisture would equal 700 pounds of dry matter (2,000 x 0.35). It takes 2.86 bales to equals 2,000 pounds of dry matter (2.86 x 700 = 2,000).

$1.60 x 2.86 (bales) = $4.57 per ton of dry matter

Dry Round Bales:
A 24’x30’ round bale tarp costs $155 and can cover 48 one thousand pound bales (24 tons). A seven year life expectancy is assumed on the tarp.

24 tons/$155 = 6.45/ton/7 years = $0.92 per ton of dry matter

Vacuum Silage:
A 40’x100’ sheet of white plastic costs $160 and can cover approximately 130 wet tons of silage or 45.5 tons of dry matter (130x0.35).

45.5 tons/$160 = $3.51 per ton of dry matter.

Compare Operational Costs:
A cost comparison of the operational costs of other conventional forage harvesting systems and the direct cut vacuum silage system was done. Total costs per hour are those necessary to fully recover all costs of owning and operating new machinery. A comparison of operational costs of used equipment is not being made at this time. In these estimates, fixed costs (overhead) include depreciation, insurance, taxes, housing and interest on investment. Depreciation is based on a 12 year life span of new equipment only purchase prices of equipment are discounted 10% from the manufacture’s list price. Interest is inflation adjusted to a 6% “real” rate. Insurance is figured at 0.85% of new cost. Housing is charged at $0.33 square foot of needed space.

Operational costs include on farm diesel fuel at $0.70 per gallon and lubrication was figured at 15% of the fuel costs; repair and maintenance costs estimates were based on accumulated hours of use. Labor costs are charged at an hourly rate that includes a 30$ benefit factor. The hourly rate is $9.50 for unskilled labor and $12.00 for skilled labor. Operating costs for the various pieces of equipment were taken from the Doane’s Report, June 1999 which bases its figures from the initial costs of the machine. The Lacerator’s operational costs were figured from its initial costs and compared to a similar harvesting machine on the Doane’s Report.

Traditional Silage, Total Cost Per Hour:
Chopper, $62.64
Blower, $31.48
Mower, $39.37
2 Wagons, $60.54
Total, $194, 03

Round Bale Silage:
Mower Conditioner 9’, $39.37
Wet Baler, $51.18
2 Wagons, $58, 22
Line Wrapper, $45.42
Total, $194.19

Dry Round Bales:
Mower Conditioner 9’, $39.37
Rake, $21.05
Baler, $46.97
2 Wagons, $58.22
Total, $165.61

Vacuum Silage:
Lacerator, $27.99
Wagon, $30.27
Total, $58.26

Benefits for the Farm/Operator:
1) Reduction of hours in the field harvesting: After implementing the direct cut vacuum silage method of harvesting we experienced a 70% reduction of hours in the field over our pervious system of round baling. Direct cut vacuum silage only required one trip across the field where as round baling required four to five trips (a trip for cutting, raking, re-raking if still wet, baling, and removal from the field).

2) Ability to harvest regardless of weather: Direct cut vacuum silage allows the farmer/operator to harvest a field regardless of the weather (with the exception of a down pouring rain). There were several days when we were out in the field harvesting direct cut silage in weather that we couldn’t have baled hay. Previously, we had to watch the weather on our local TV station daily to “scout” for three good days in a row to plan a field for harvest. With the direct cut system we were able to harvest an entire field and have it stored at the end of the day.

3) More time to spend with my family: With the significant reduction of hours in the field we were able to spend more time with our family in personal and recreational activities. There is no dollar amount that we can place on this time.

4) More time to spend on other aspects of managing the overall dairy operations: Once again, the reduction in hours spent in the field allowed us more time to spend managing the herd. One of the biggest improvements was with the herd’s reproduction record, since we are a seasonal dairy it is of utmost importance that the cows get bred on time. The reduced hours in the field allowed us the time necessary to watch for heats, manage pastures, keep records, as well as other value adding areas of our farm operation.

5) Manure not concentrated near building: With the direct cut vacuum silage system the farmer is able to conveniently locate the stacks in a place that works well for the cow flow and the farmer. One consideration with this system is that the stacks can be conveniently stored in the field and the livestock can be taken to the feed. This would reduce the cost and labor of hauling the feed to the animals, and the manure back to the field. Our stacks were placed in a field that the cows typically graze though on a rotational basis. We were able to feed out a stack by pulling an electric wire across the face of the stack and adjusting it each day. Feeding in the field eliminates feeding costs as well as manure in the barnyard.

6) Less manure improves herd health conditions: With more of the manure away form the buildings there are less fly problems near the housing facilities. Less manure also reduces the risk of herd health infections such as mastitis.

7) Lacerator and wagon are multi-use equipment: The Lacerator is very versatile and can be used to harvest a variety of crops. As stated previously, the Lacerator can mow hay, green chop, harvest forage crops for silage, and clip pastures. It can also harvest corn stalks after the corn has been combined (excellent for bedding). The wagon is also very versatile. While it is used to haul silage to the pile when harvesting, it can also be used to haul the silage to the animals when the stack is located away from the livestock. It can feed out the back or the front and has a side discharge to feed along fence lines or feed bunks. It has an aggressive feeder chain that has the ability to tear up round bales and feed them out the front as well.

8) Reduction in machinery: Because of the versatility of the Lacerator and wagon, fewer pieces of machinery may be needed in the farm operation.

9) Reduction in down time with fewer machinery repairs: The Lacerator is a simple machine with very few moving parts. It has knives which are easy and inexpensive to replace (about $2.00 each) and/or sharpen. We have had the machine for two years and have had only one knife that needed to be replaced.

10) Reduction of capital investment in equipment needed: Because the direct cut silage system has the ability to replace several pieces of other equipment, this equipment could be sold thus reducing the farm’s overall overhead expenses.

11) Re-allocation of capital to upgrade remaining equipment required to operate dairy/grazing operation: The funds from sold equipment could be reinvested in the farm operation to reduce debt, purchase more livestock, upgrade needed machinery, etc.

After completing our research we found that the direct cut vacuum silage system had the lowest capital investment and the lowest operational costs for new equipment. The Lacerator and wagon were able to harvest in a single trip across the field with a significantly lowered weather risk. In short, direct cut vacuum silage involved considerably less capital investment, less labor, and less storage costs. The only system that beat vacuum silage for capital investment was the used equipment for dry baling. One must keep in mind that although the dry baling was cheaper the comparison is being made between used baling equipment and new vacuum silage equipment.

The capital investment for used round baling equipment was cheaper as was storage. However, the cost of operation was considerably higher due to the increase in the trips across the field and the labor involved in doing such.

Traditional silage is close to the direct cut vacuum system in terms of trips across the field however, it takes at least two people to operate it efficiently. This increases the cost of operation and labor. It also is very costly to maintain and the outright capital investment is cost prohibitive.

We have created the following table to rank the four systems in four different areas. The total score is based on a range from 4 to 16; a score of four would be the best and 16 the worst.

Table 1 Ranking of Four Hay Making Systems
Ranking: 1 = best, 4 = worst
Traditional Silage, Round Bale Silage, Dry Round Bales, Vacuum Silage
Capital Inves, 4, 3, 2, 1
Storage, 4, 3, 1, 2
Operational, 3, 4, 2, 1
Trips across the field, 2, 3, 4, 1
Total, 13, 13, 9, 5

As we completed our research, it became quite apparent that not all hay harvesting systems are equal, or even similar in some cases.

The real costs begin after the initial capital investment. These are the every day out of pocket expenses. The storage cost chart shows this, but the operational cost chart brought about some real surprises for us. Round bales have long been perceived as the least cost system. However, as our research demonstrates their costs of operation is nearly as high as the traditional silage making. The vacuum silage system with the Lacerator and multi-purpose wagon clearly comes through as the lowest cost forage harvesting system. Even when compared to used equipment, the Lacerator and multi-purpose wagon compared well, showing only a $4,000 difference from used round baling equipment.

A field day (advertised through the Presque Isle County Extension Office) was held in Northern Michigan at the farm of Scott and Shanna Briggy on July 27, 1999. a demonstration of the Lacerator and multi-purpose wagon were done and a small silage stack was made on the premise. Another field day was scheduled two weeks later to open the stack and reveal the quality of feed inside. Although no feed tests were taken on the feed, it was evident that fermentation had begun and that the silage was in good condition.

A second field day (advertised through the MSU Extension Office) was held on our farm on September 25, 1999. Again, a demonstration of the Lacerator and multi-purpose wagon were done and a large silage stack was sealed for future use. We also demonstrated the versatility of the Lacerator and wagon by showing that the Lacerator could pick up a windrow ad the variety of ways to unload the wagon. A video was taken on this day and also accompanies this report.

We have also been interviewed by four different farm magazines regarding this system, two of which focus on this project. An article pertaining to this system and our operation has appeared in the Michigan’s Farm and Country Journal (January, 1999), Michigan Farmer (March, 1999), Stockman Grass Farmer (August, 1999) and the Farm Show Magazine (Vol. 23, No. 3, 1999). Through these two field days and the various farm articles, we have received much interest in the direct cut system. Many farmers have contacted us either by mail or by phone to ask about our experiences with the system and we have been happy to share our information with them.

We also intend to present the direct cut silage making system at the Northern Michigan Grazing Conference in Gaylord, Michigan in February of 2000.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.