Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Silage Time

The first signs of fall are upon us out here on the ol' prairie. The first round of fall harvest is here - it's time to chop whatever is planted for it and get it put away. Ensilage is the process where plant matter is chopped into small pieces, packed in a relatively oxygen free environment, and left to stew for a while. The material actually ferments - converting the rough starches of the plant into sugars that cattle can digest and gain feed value - much more efficiently than the baled plant. The ensilage link goes to a pretty decent Wikipedia article on the subject.

Around here, the main ingredient is simply known as "feed." It is actually a fairly specialized form of sorghum or maize. Instead of being optimized for grain, the plants are bred for quick growth and maximum bulk - so they are tall instead of the shorter grain plants - aka "milo." Sometimes "feed" is baled, because it does make good bulk matter for cattle in the winter. But, silage is usually a better bet. We call silage made from corn "cornlage" to distinguish it from the sorghum based variety. In all cases, the plants are completely ground into relatively small chunks under an inch - as a rule. We do cut corn "wet," too. The normal moisture content of wet corn is around thirty two percent - 28 to nearly 40. The corn is tub ground and packed like silage - if it's too dry, there are too many fines, and too wet, the result is "slushy." But, the corn here is still way too wet for cutting as wet corn. Elevators prefer "dry" corn at 18% or lower these days - they used to dry it with specialized propane powered dryers, but if it's under 18% just using fans to keep air circulating will keep it from developing hot spots and spoilage. If there is one thing a grain elevator does not need, it would be a hot spot that could erupt in a fire.

So, we're still in the silage business at the moment, so that's what I'm gonna talk about. I don't know what I'd do without YouTube - here I am in Greeley CO, and unable to actually take pictures or video of the process. But, hey, others have beat me to it, so I'll steal their stuff.


This is a cool video, because it's usually one chopper for one truck - but in this case, the spacing was just right for two choppers to fill a truck. The chopper operators can change the direction and angle of the stream of chopped feed into the truck. Most of the trucks have "live bottoms" - where the material is moved to the rear mechanically. We used to use our old grain bobtails with high sides added, and we were lucky to keep them from tipping over when dumping, at least until the floors were slicked up. Feed hanging up in a front corner of a long end dump trailer can upset the ol' apple cart in a hurry - so, most silage trucks don't have that option.


Most trucks around here don't bother with the auto tarps - they are overfilled and lose some off the top headed to their destination. It can make a gummy mess on a windshield. The chopped feed is generally hauled to a feedyard and put into a silage pit. Back in the day, our pit was just a slit cut into the side of a hill, but feedyards have large concrete walls on a concrete base, and fill between them.


I'd never heard it called "buckraking" before. Learn something new every day. You can see the walls are lined with black plastic - more will be put on the top and weighted down with old car tires. This seals the material from oxygen and helps keep keep the heat. We never bothered with a cover - the top would get rotten and seal the feed - it was black, crusty and nasty, and was not fed, but it did help seal the rest. This stuff comes out steaming on a freezing winter day - it was actually pleasant to back the ol' pickup to the pit and pitchfork in a load for the cattle on a really cold day. The heat from the newly exposed silage would warm us, sheltered from the wind - since we were in a trench cut into a hill. It also has a very pleasant smell - a sweet, tangy boozy sort of odor - one can imagine that a cow would really like this stuff, and hey, guess what, they do.

At any rate, it has to be packed or it won't ferment evenly. So, around here, big four wheel drive tractors with super wide dozer blades push the fresh loads up onto the pile and drive over it, constantly packing. It's certainly different driving one of those tractors on the springy feed - much better ride than the normal field work provides.

So, a farmer would contract his feed to a feedlot and hire custom silage cutters to chop and haul the stuff to the feedlot. If you search YouTube for this subject, you'll see a lot of tractor drawn feed buggys being used - some buggies being towed by the chopper. Not efficient enough for the long distance prairie - we've got to use trucks to haul the miles to the 'yard - can't be waiting all day for a slow tractor to get back to the field. But, a smaller farmer/stockman who puts up his own silage with his field next door to his farm would find it more cost effective to use his existing tractors to pull those wagons rather than buy a fleet of trucks. It just depends on the prevailing conditions due to location and need. Some of this stuff is bagged, too - into long plastic sausages several hundred yards long and ten or more feet in diameter.

I've noticed here in Weld County the onion and spud harvest has started - plus I'm sure there are other crops I can't even ID gettin' hauled in. For us in Western Kansas, the fall harvest is much more leisurely and drawn out than the intensity of wheat harvest.

It'll pick up a bit more when the corn dries out more, and the beans and milo are ready. Combines have to be set up for each crop, and there are specialty headers for corn and the other smaller grains. More on that as the time approaches!


Cedar View Paint Horses said...

Wow. Way different than here in WI. First of all, that corn is ginormous. Ours maaaaybe gets to the 8' range. And most of our corn is harvested for the kernel. We seldom see sorghum - maybe for green chopped feed. The big thing here is haylage. Either in bunks or blown into "cow toothpaste tubes". But sometimes haylage is too rich and it has to be supplemented with chopped straw for roughage.

Most of the hauling is done with big single and double axle silage carts, but it's tough with all of the road restrictions.

And bunks here are nowhere near as massive. Even the big farms don't push it that high, they just build more bunks.

Fascinating stuff.

Jeffro said...

Yeah, most of the corn grown here is for the kernel, too - but there is a lot of it cut wet.

The overwhelming majority of corn here is irrigated - there just isn't enough moisture in a summer to grow it without. Any that try usually end up with a Dirty Thirties style picture opportunity.

threecollie said...

Cool videos! I called the boss out to see them. Can't imagine moving feed at that volume. They could take all our corn off in half an hour...if they could get in the field that is. lol

Jeffro said...

Heh. All we have to do to get the fields to dry down for harvest is shut the water off.

drjim said...

What a great post! Even though I grew up in the Illinois cornfields, I never got involved with the operations of the farms around me. I've heard the term 'silage' many times, but never knew what it really meant, or all the work that went into it.