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Wrapped or Unwrapped?

Opinions Vary on Whether Bale Net Wrap Can Affect Cattle Health - Russ Quinn, DTN Staff Reporter

Many forage producers now use plastic net-wrap coverings to protect round bales from the effects of weather and to save time while baling

Anyone who chews gum or eats individually wrapped candy has likely swallowed a piece of wrapper at one time or another. Though unpleasant, it's unlikely the small piece of wrapper caused any serious health problems. But can the same be said for cattle that swallow pieces of hay bale wrapper?

That's a question that is still up for debate among cattle producers and livestock experts.

Many forage producers now use plastic-net wrap coverings to protect bales from the effects of weather and to save time while baling. Few studies have been conducted on whether producers should remove the wrap before feeding these bales to their cattle or if it is safe to leave it on. However, at least one university study suggests net wrap can have ill effects on cattle health if they eat large amounts of it.


Taylor Grussing, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension cow/calf field specialist, said the only recent study on the effects of ingesting net wrap on cattle was done by North Dakota State University Extension (NDSU) in 2014. Several different bale binding materials were evaluated to see how long each would remain in the cattle rumen after being ingested.

After 14 days in the rumen of forage-fed steers, none of the three types of net wrap or biodegradable twine samples had broken down, NDSU found. More than 80% of the hay samples disappeared and more than 70% of the sisal twine evaluated disappeared during the 14-day period of incubation, according to the NDSU study.

Unfortunately, the research done at NDSU in 2014 has not been followed up on. Grussing said she hopes more studies will happen in the future to better understand the effect of cattle eating net wrap.

"If net wrap builds up to a large enough quantity or mass, there could be issues with digestibility of other feedstuffs and potential blockage of nutrients getting out of the rumen," Grussing told DTN. "This is because space is being taken up by net wrap, the animal can't eat as much and also the rumen fermentation system might not be as abundant as they normally would be due to the disruption of normal flow of nutrients."

Grussing said when net-wrapped bales are tub ground without removing the net wrap, the plastic is broken down into smaller pieces so an accumulation of plastic would be less likely. Backgrounded and feedlot cattle are fed hay for a short enough period of time that accumulation may not be an issue, but more attention should be placed on cows that are fed net-wrapped bales year after year.

Knowing all of this, what do cattlemen do with their net wrap? In an unscientific poll of cattlemen on Twitter, DTN found a wide range of responses to the question about handling net wrap. The topic sparked significant interest, with DTN receiving more than 460 responses on Twitter.

The majority of respondents said they removed the net wrap all the time before feeding or grinding hay. A handful of cattlemen said they removed it when feeding bales of hay in a feeder but left it when the bales were to be ground. No one openly admitted to feeding hay in bale form with net wrap on.


Jenny Mennega (@dollyfarms2), a cattle producer/farmer along with her husband, Eric, from LeRoy, Illinois, told DTN she always cuts net wrap off the bales she feeds her cattle.

"I think it makes a mess of the spreader and I can't imagine it being healthy, but I'm not a vet or nutritionist," Mennega said.

Some complain about having to take the time to remove net wrap from bales. Mennega said it really only takes a minute to take it off, and if the bale has snow or ice on it, she said she will drop the bale so it bounces and it's easier to remove the net wrap.

Another cattle producer who removes the net wrap is Cheyenne Smith (@JLazySAngus). She and her husband, Jay, are ranchers near Salmon, Idaho, and have a small registered cow/calf herd, a small commercial herd and are also seedstock producers.

"We always remove it," Smith said. "Net wrap can also be devastating to birds of prey that use it as nesting materials, as they get tangled up, especially the young ones."

Smith said they have found if the bales are frozen they will let the cows graze on the bales for a short amount of time and then remove the net wrap. This makes it easier to remove the wrap, he said. Mature cows will not try to eat net wrap in general, but younger cows in the 1-to-3-year-old range will try to eat it, she said.


Among those who remove net wrap for feeding bales in feeders but who leave it if the bale is to be ground is Todd Eggerling (@teggerling), a cattlemen/farmer from Martell, Nebraska. Eggerling said he will cut loose the end of the net wrap to tub grind, but if the bales are to be fed directly or even processed, he will cut the net wrap off.

"Wrap is worse than strings in winter," Eggerling said. "We remove tails (when hay is ground), so they don't wrap and take out the drive seals on our tractors."

Jay Culver (@jayculver1), a cattle producer from Iroquois, South Dakota, said he does not remove net wrap when bales are fed. He grinds all of his hay, which he feeds to his cows.

"I don't cut anything off," Culver said. "I don't know of any feedlot that does around here."

He said he is not aware of any health issues by keeping the net wrap on bales as they are ground, but he did add he doesn't doubt it would be better to not have it in cattle. 

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