Filling the Bunker Silo

Remembering accidents, near-misses and lessons learned

TheMcCormickDeeringNo2.jpg

Left: The McCormick-Deering No. 2 ensilage harvester, dating to about 1945. Units like this were used to cut silage in the field, and fill silos. “For a one-man operation,” boasted company promotional materials. “Takes the drudgery out of silo filling.” (Images here and below left courtesy of Larry Gay.)

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In the summer of 1954, my family moved from the city back to the farm. We moved a lot as I was growing up, but the farm had been my home several times before. Still, silo filling was a new experience for me.

In the area where we lived, there were few upright silos. But there was still a need for cut corn and sorghum for use as silage. In our area in the mid-1950s, the weather was dry, and some of the corn had low yields if left to mature. The hay crop was also damaged by the weather in those years.

Farmers made do. In place of an upright silo, a bunker (or pit) silo was dug into the ground and used to hold chopped corn and sorghum. The first bunker silo filling I saw took place just across the road from our house. A lot of men and equipment were involved in the process, so I was on hand to watch and see how it was done; how the spreading and packing was handled.

The next year, I was called to help a neighbor fill his silo. He had two tractors, both Fergusons: a TO-20 and a TO-30. They were much too small to pull the false end gates out of the wagons used to haul the silage from the field. Because there were few silos in our area, there was little need for self-unloading wagons, and there were no dump wagons yet. We could, however, make a false end gate and place it at the front of the wagon, so it could be pulled back, bringing the silage with it into the bunker.

My family had a Farmall F-20 big and heavy enough to do the job. Once the silage was leveled, my job was to drive back and forth over it until it was packed down. One day, we were pulling the silage out of the wagons from the lower floor of the bunker when, in order to get better traction, I raised the drawbar to a dangerous height for a level pull. Meanwhile, a truck being used to haul silage got mired in a wet field. I was called from the bunker to drag it out. I hooked the cable to the truck, and with the drawbar set as it was, the tractor's front wheels came about 30 inches off the ground. Lucky for me, the engine stalled. If it hadn't, the tractor might have flipped over backwards. I learned my lesson: Never raise the drawbar to such a point that it will make the tractor rear up that much (unless you have wheelie bars on the tractor). I unhooked the cable from the tractor and went back to the bunker. I told them the truck could just stay there.

The next summer, after graduating from high school, I did day work for area farmers, trying to get together a stake to leave home in September, when I would be 18. I was working for a cousin, hauling silage from the field to the bunker. During that time we worked on several farms. Because the custom was to trade work, many tractors and men would converge on a farm to get the harvesting done. Then we'd move on to the next farm.

That was the first time I had pulled a wagon alongside a field chopper. On the first round, as I came to the end of the field, I did not turn soon enough. There I was with the back wheel of my tractor in between the back wheel of the chopper tractor and the tractor. The other man was very kind and patient with me. "We will both pull forward slowly and ease away from each other," he said. Another lesson learned: That was the first and last time I got myself in that kind of a jam.

Silo filling seemed to generate a variety of accidents and near-misses. On one trip to the bunker, as I helped the man doing the leveling and packing remove the end gate from the wagon, something caused me to look behind me, and I saw this green-and-yellow blur hurtling down the slope at us. I yelled at him and we both jumped out of the way just as a tractor hit the back of the wagon. Evidently he had not set the brakes on the tractor.

On another occasion, while I was leveling and packing the bunker, I had a bit of a scare. As I drove up the mound of silage, the tractor's back wheel sunk into a soft pocket, causing the tractor to make a violent 90-degree turn. There was nothing I could do but ride it out and drive up and over the side of the bunker. Another near-miss; another lesson learned.

During those weeks of day work, I had the opportunity to drive several different tractors. My favorite was a John Deere Model A. I was also introduced to the Oliver make, driving a Model 77. That was the smoothest-running tractor I ever operated.

Silo filling was the best farm job I had while growing up. Just think of it: All I had to do was drive the tractor from field to bunker. Some of the crop was so far from the silo that the round-trip from field to bunker took an hour. Most of the jobs I had that summer involved working in hay fields, riding sleds and wagons behind the baler. There were no easy days in the hay fields: that's why I was so happy to haul silage.

As I look back on those days, I wonder if the young men of today will have the varied memories of rural life that I have. Those were good days; they bring back many memories … the smell of just-plowed earth mixed with the smell of the tractor; and the smells of freshly mowed hay, wheat stubble when it's wet, and a cow in the milk barn on a very cold morning.

- Duane Craig is an active member of the Greater Kansas City Two Cylinder Club, and a member of the Western Missouri Antique Tractor and Machinery Association. Contact him at 1001 Country Club Drive, Butler, MO 64730; e-mail: ducraig@earthlink.net