St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Manning up on the Farm -- Silo Filling

You better try to find the cutoff fork tines in the silo” Dad said as he frowned at me and looking both irritated and worried.  “If a cow swallows those pointed metal tips eating silage, it could puncture the stomach and kill her.” 
A farm silo near Atlas WI tells a story. When a farmer had a stave silo built, the silo company offered the choice of a checker board white stave finish at the top for decoration. This farmer chose it, and then later had the silo extended higher. It would have cost much more to undo the first decoration and move it up than to just add a new one. Dad didn't decorate his silo as he expected with 4 boys that it would have to be extended much taller as the boys all joined the farm operation. It never happened -- farming wasn't in our blood I guess (except for Byron who did try it for a few years).

 Dad had an even, calm demeanor and when I saw him worried, I worried too, not about me, but about the cows, our livelihood on the dairy farm and my role trying to be a man in the harvest crew. 
I was 13 years old and helping out on the farm during silo filling time. In the days before field choppers and self unloading wagons, silo filling was one of those neighborhood events where neighbors went from farm to farm filling each farmer’s silo. A farm boy looked forward to threshing, shredding and silo filling as the end of summer events and longed to be a useful part of each. I had even taken a few days off from rural school to help out.    

Marv and Russ with the small Rumely before hooking up to the silo. The barnyard was always muddy in the fall and it was messy to get things lined up -- filler and belt to tractor.  
Before Grandpa drove into the yard with his big Rumely Oil Pull tractor pulling the silo filler, all on steel wheels, clanking their way to line up at the silo, raising the pipes to the top of the silo and hooking up the belt from tractor to filler, each farmer had already used a corn binder to cut the corn, bind it into bundles left in rows in the corn field.
This Rochester (MN) brand silo has a distinctive white-green pattern at the top.
Each farmer’s silo was filled in rotation based somewhat on the field conditions with our clay hills needing a few dry days to be navigable.  When our turn came, the silo filling ring members showed up with their tractors and hay racks ready to spend a few days filling our two silos. 
Mom and Grandma prided themselves on the meals they served the crew with meat and potatoes and pies with fall vegetables – all home raised food.  To eat at the men’s table, you had to work just like the men, and this year was my first chance to do it.  I was big enough to toss the bundles and responsible enough to do it right, at least I thought so.
My job was to help pitch the heavy green corn bundles neatly on the hayrack, piling them as high as I could throw them. It was hard work and I tried to match the rhythm and ease of Uncle Maurice as he seemed to effortlessly toss them into a neat load.
  Four or five wagons loaded up and each in turn unloaded at the filler where Uncle Chan fed it, brother Marv leveled in the silo between loads and Grandpa tended the Rumely, a temperamental beast, and oiled and greased the filler deciding each night whether to unbolt the blades and take them home to sharpen. 
  I was proud to be considered big enough to hold my own on pitching bundles with the men and looked forward to their stories at the dinner table.   
The silage pipes are in place permanently on these two silos. The tripod at the top held the motorized silo unloader that lowered down the silo as it chewed and dumped silage down the chute to the barn where sometimes a conveyer moved it to the cows, but more likely a farmer with a silage cart spread it out.
After loading the wagon for the first time, a somewhat straggly load,  I tossed the three-time fork onto the top of the load and brother Ev, my driver, hauled it to the filler, pulling the Farmall F-14 tractor and wagon to the unloading spot. Uncle Chan pitched the bundles one at a time into the filler. Normally, I as the loader, would unloaded too, but worrying I might not keep an even load on the filler the first time, and throw the belt or kill the Rumely, Uncle Chan stepped in to do it as I watched to learn the process.  I already knew this, but watched carefully hoping to unload next time. 
The filler was a metal slatted conveyor belt running to a large enclosed whirling set of sharp steel blades on a big wheel that chopped the corn stalks into half-inch long pieces of stalk and little disks of corn ears and then blew it all up the pipes and showered down into the silo. 
The green corn fermented into a brown savory aromatic silage preserving it for the whole winter.  Cows loved silage, and as it made use of the whole corn stalk and ear in a form that was easily digestible, was a mainstay of winter cow feed.    
Uncle Chan didn’t see my load-top fork as he pitched in the bundles and only when the blade made a kerchunk and had cut off a half-inch of the tines did yank back the conveyor shutoff  before it made a second cut and whirl them into the silo too.  He held up the shortened fork for inspection.  
Dad had the next wagon behind and came over to see what was wrong. I got sent inside the silo to try to find tines in the silage stack while Grandpa shut down the belt pully and inspected the blades for damage.  After 10 minutes and several of us hunting fruitlessly, and Grandpa deciding the blades were OK for the rest of the day—just a few small dents in the sharp edge,   Dad decided we couldn’t hold up the crew anymore, and we went back to work, me with the shortened dull pointed fork as a reminder.
All winter, I worried about cows with punctured stomachs, and took the responsibility to pitch down the silage each day carefully inspecting each forkful, especially as we got down to the level where the tines should have been.

An empty farm.  The barn will go first and the silo likely stand until someone decides to pull it down. 
One time showed up in the manger as the cow chose not to eat it and the other two never appeared.  No cows got sick, and so the episode passed except for my own memory of a mistake that caused much worry and some kidding at the dinner table that changed to stories of snakes, stones, and other items being ground up for silage on older days in farming and it appeared to me that others may have had some missteps on their way to being farm men. 
Where is the barn?